Reviewing Hell: Hellraiser (1987)

Movies about Hell don’t get much more influential than Hellraiser. Based on Clive Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart and directed by Barker himself, this is the film that burnt the image of Pinhead into our collective unconscious. Who doesn’t recognize that stark white creature (demon? lost soul? who knows?) with pins driven into his face and skull?

Hellraiser is important because it gave us a new vision of the demonic, one infused with overwhelming pain, black leather outfits, sado-masochism, and those damned hooks. What’s fascinating about Hellraiser is that it isn’t a slasher film. Although definitely gory, it has a very different tone than films like Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street. Hellraiser drifts back and forth from being a gross-out gore-fest (dismembered bodies, blood, hooks) to being a kind of erotically charged thriller; that tonal juxtaposition works to create something truly unique and disturbing.

The Set-Up: After Frank finds and solves mysterious puzzle box, he’s torn apart by vicious demons named Cenobites. His brother Larry and wife Julia move into Frank’s house; we learn quickly that Julia and Frank had an affair. When Larry cuts his hand, Frank feeds on hat blood and reemerges as a dessicated corpse. Julia promises to get him more blood, and Larry’s daughter Kristy is the only one who can stand between Frank, Julia, and horror . . .

While The Hellbound Heart smashes us in the face with the Cenobites in the first twenty pages, so much so that the rest of the novella is anticlimactic, Hellraiser keeps its true terror until the end. We get hints of Pinhead at the beginning, but he only makes his full emergence at the end. That lets the movie build tension throughout its 90 minutes, keeping this exciting throughout. 9/10.

Scope: This is the only place Hellraiser is a little disappointing. Like a lot of 80s horror movies, the scope is surprisingly small: three or four people are endangered by the Cenobites, no more. Perhaps the intimate scale makes it more horrify, maybe less. 8/10.

Horror: Hellraiser has a great mix of nasty, frightening gore and psychological terror. There aren’t as many scare-jumps as some horror movies, but once Frank is wandering around as a half-made corpse, things are truly disturbing. With Pinhead as the icing on the cake, you’ve got a true classic. 10/10.

Originality: It’s quite an accomplishment to create a horror icon in any film, and Pinhead is exactly that. While Barker came up with him in novella form, the visual translation of that creation is astonishing—I’d argue Hellraiser is better than The Hellbound Heart, if by a little bit. 10/10.

Enjoyability: Horror movies tend to date quickly; in our culture of forever pushing the boundaries, what was scary 30 years ago may seem silly nowadays. Hellraiser generally avoids this pratfall; the special effects still hold up, and the pacing is brisk and modern. 9/10.

Total: 46/50. Still a classic of the horror and Hell genres.

Other Takes: I always like to see what other WordPress bloggers have to say about things. There aren’t a lot of movie reviews of older films like Hellraiser, but here’s what I found:
My World vs. The Movies
Glynn Avenue Massacre
Seedy Reviews

There’s also a cool-looking documentary called Leviathan: The Story of Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser 2.

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