30 years on, VHS Revival revisits one of horror’s bleakest creations.
One of the most striking elements of Hellraiser is that the Cenobites are almost secondary characters.
When it comes to modern horror’s most iconic figures, Pinhead is up there with the likes of Fred Krueger and Michael Myers, and although a series of diminishing sequels expanded on the Cenobite legacy, it is that first movie which fans will invariably reference, in spite of the black-eyed antagonist’s relatively sparse screen time.
In fact, when you think about it, Pinhead and his gang of sado-masochistic minions are not the movie’s antagonists at all. That title belongs to Frank the Monster (Oliver Smith), whose vindictive spirit and incessant self-regard puts our cast of malformed monsters to shame. The Cenobites are not strictly evil. Sure, they belong to the realms of hell, a place to which they cannot return without a victim to subject to the kind of torture that makes them angels to some and demons to others, but their deeds have boundaries. In some ways, their evil is relative and tied to necessity.
Although the ‘Hellraiser’ title seems to refer to Frank, the movie itself was marketed using Pinhead’s image, and it is testament to the production’s extraordinary make-up and practical effects that the film has acquired such an iconic status, forging an entire franchise. Some of those sequels made slasher fodder out of some of the most unique horror creations of the era, but that is a question of business, and thirty years after its release the original instalment still glows with morbid distinction, from its graphic nature and visceral tone to its bleak nihilism and perverse ethos. The fact that the Cenobites are so seldom seen only adds to the movie’s colourless mystique.
Pinhead – Explorers… in the further regions of experience. Demons to some, angels to others.
So startling was Pinhead’s design back in 1987 that cast members failed to recognise actor Doug Bradley when out of make-up, and he was able to wander around the set unnoticed, regarded as a stranger by cast and crew members he had previously spent hours working with. The remaining Cenobites were equally memorable, from the perverse creature with the chattering teeth (Nicholas Vince) to the lip-licking monstrosity known as Butterball (Simon Bamford), while Grace Kirby’s wire-headed monster is perhaps the most sadistic of all. The director’s use of lighting when introducing his marquee attractions is also key to their enduring impact, resulting in some of the movie’s most ominous scenes.
Hellraiser is based on Clive Barker’s novella, The Hellbound Heart, and it is the British author who writes and directs, producing a low-budget debut of startling accomplishment. It is not a perfect movie, but it is a creation which, due to its unique credentials, has no peers from which to draw comparisons, and as a consequence is difficult to criticise. Like Barker’s fiction, the action is relentlessly bleak. From Frank’s mesmerising regeneration to a series of attic-bound murders, the movie is a visual grotesquerie, while a detailed attention to bodily harm leaves you in an almost constant state of cringing. From the foreshadowing image of Larry’s wounded hand snagging on a nail, to the full-on exhibitionism of Pinhead’s dungeon of mutilation, this is horror of the most unsettling variety.
Another anomaly that makes the strangely British Hellraiser so unique is the order of significance that its characters assume. The movie has a quasi-final girl in Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), and although she has all the prerequisites for the role, it is antagonists Frank and Julia who take centre stage for the majority of the movie’s running time, delivering the kind of bleak performances that encapsulate the director’s inimitable vision.
Frank is the antithesis of his wimpish brother, Larry (Andrew Robinson), an atrocity of seething malevolence who thrives on manipulation and suffering. He is also coldly charismatic, his calculated reasoning infectious like a slowly creeping virus. Frank’s make-up design is a miracle of practical effects, from his initial emergence from Larry’s spilt blood to the skeletal tower of sinew who clings to the shadows awaiting his next victim. After escaping the box-bound torture of the Cenobites, his character revels in the process of parasitic regeneration, feeding on his victims as if slurping pulp through a straw, while nailing rats to the wall and needlessly revealing himself to his horrified niece are the kind of small pleasures that he relishes in. Frank is a user of the worst variety, a feeder of emotions who delights in the very process.
Frank – [voice-over] I thought I’d gone to the limits. I hadn’t. The Cenobites gave me an experience beyond limits. Pain and pleasure, indivisible.
Equally impressive is Claire Higgins as Julia, giving us a character who treads a tenuous line between good and evil. Julia is bored with her domesticated life and dutiful husband, dreaming of the illicit affair she had with Frank, until the day he reemerges from the recesses of Pinhead’s realm. Julia begins as a somewhat fragile character, a person repressed by the memories of the miscreant who had once lit a fire in her, and who is irrevocably drawn to danger like a moth to a flame. When Frank sends her out to entice victims for his physical rejuvenation, she is initially horrified, wracked with nerves and withering at the very prospect of fulfilling his demands. However, once that line has been crossed, she is a very different creature, as prone to frantic hammer attacks as she is to retreat, until eventually she becomes tarred with an oblique perversity, the stimulation of the kill becoming almost sensual.
Like most low-budget horror movies looking to make a financial impact, Hellraiser is not without its flaws. Scenes in which we glimpse the domains of hell see events briefly lose their focus, while blockbuster sequences involving monster animatronics have become somewhat dated, detracting from the movie’s overall fear factor. But these are minor and unavoidable flaws which can perhaps only be viewed in hindsight.
As a creation, the original Pinhead will always remain shrouded in mystique, a character as well known as Krueger and Myers, but perhaps not as commercially prominent, and one less inclined to the financial cherry of self-mocking. This is a movie which relies not on jump scares or tension, but on pure, visceral horror and unprecedented bleakness. It is sadistic, unsettling and often hard to stomach. It also has a strange philosophy, giving us not a clearly delineated monster, but blurred margins, exploring the idea that pleasure and pain are determined only by the beholder, while good and evil often manifest as notions of subjectivity.