Next Sunday, August 2nd, the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood will be play a double feature of Hellraiser and Pumpkinhead. If you enjoy violent horror movies and you haven’t seen Hellraiser, I strongly recommend you catch it.
Hellraiser has an interesting production history. Writer and director Clive Barker is best known as an author of horror novels and short stories; Hellraiser began as a novella called “The Hellbound Heart” which Barker published in 1986. Barker decided to adapt his novella personally rather than option it to a studio; this is largely the result of his displeasure with Underworld, a film adaptation made of a previous Barker story. Barker’s decision to shoot Hellraiser as an independent film was a wise one; it’s hard to imagine a major studio like Universal or Warner Bros making a film as gory or sexually explicit as Barker’s finished film.
Barker, while inexperienced as a director, has an excellent sense of both tone and pacing, the plot moves from one terrifying scene to another. The performances are also quality throughout the film; the villains are particularly memorable.
The film begins with a man buying a small and mysterious-looking box. Later, as he tries to open it, metal hooks attached to rope suddenly jump out of the box, hooking and tearing into his flesh and sucking him inside the box. With his screams of pain, we are introduced to the world of Hellraiser.
In a lot of ways, Hellraiser is emblematic of 80’s horror movies in general. Like most horror movies, it is low-budget, but nearly every dime of that budget must have been spent on fake blood and gory special effects. It has a strong sexual undercurrent, which was de rigueur for a cult 80’s horror movie. Lastly, it introduces a trio of great villains in Frank, Julia, and the infamous Pinhead.
The primary villain is Frank, an escapee from a horrible hell dimension. He comes back as a ghastly monster, an incomplete skeleton with flesh, but comes closer to his regaining his human body with every victim he eats. He teams up with Julia, his sister-in-law and lover, to seduce and murder scores of businessmen for him. Julia’s split role as both a seductress and murderer are symbolic of the movie’s assertion that pleasure and pain are intertwined.
The most iconic element of the Hellraiser franchise (though ironically, they only appear in a few scenes) are the Cenobites, who are heavily influenced by BDSM culture. They are masochistic demons that can no longer differentiate between intense pleasure and pain; they live in alternate dimension just to torture themselves and anyone else foolish enough to open the box from the film’s introduction. Of the Cenobites' wardrobe, Barker later said that their costumes were inspired by "punk, Catholicism, and by the visits I would take to S&M clubs in New York and Amsterdam."
The leader of the Cenobites, Pinhead, is one of the best villains in horror history. His face is covered in perfectly spaced and arranged nails in his head and that he has drilled in personally, which speaks to his masochism. But he is more than just a scary face. Brilliantly played by Doug Bradley, Pinhead has an unusual sophistication, especially compared with many of the silent slasher villains from the era. Watching Doug Bradley chew scenery is a horror fan’s delight.
Ironically, Doug Bradley didn’t want to play Pinhead because he considered the role too small. Bradley was new to acting and wanted to have his face seen without heavy makeup, so he actually auditioned for a small part as one of the movers. Luckily, Bradley found the required aspect of terror and turned a flat character into the star of the franchise.
Hellraiser plays August 2nd at 7:30 at the Egyptian theater, and horror fans everywhere owe it themselves to see the classic on the big screen.
- Joseph Belzberg