Hands up if you miss a certain kind of 80s film. You know the ones. Not the serious stuff like Raging Bull or Kramer vs Kramer, brilliant though they are, but the commercialised exploitation movies with evocative titles like Terminator, RoboCop or sprightly 30-year old Hellraiser. These were comic book movies for adults, revelling in ultra-violence and bad press. And yet, there was an innocence about them too; morally redundant torture porn passes for grown-up horror these days. Ironic that Hellraiser is a story that could lend itself to Hostel-style shenanigans, but it’s delightful torments are so much better.
This week, you can relive that brief heyday of gory silliness. Clive Barker’s original Pinhead party is being re-released. Oh, it still has such sights to show you. Most of it holds up; the in-your-face style of shock and disgust carrying through some of the more dated bits.
The story is suitably daft. Larry Cotton (Dirty Harry’s Andrew Robinson) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) are moving into an old house. It already belonged to Larry’s family and wayward brother Frank (Sean Chapman) has been there, but he’s nowhere to be found. Frank has been messing about with a mysterious puzzle box, trapping him in a sadomasochistic hell dimension. He’s about to escape and the demonic Cenobites are not pleased. Larry’s daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), will be the one to stumble on the cross-dimensional nightmare.
It transpires that Julia had an affair with bad-brother-in-law Frank and the memory of the dalliances is undermining her marriage to soft old Larry. Kirsty is keeping her distance from her dodgy stepmother, which is a good idea because Frank is almost literally pulling himself back together in Julia’s attic. Based on director Clive Barker’s own short story, the film has a welcome British heritage, not least with Clare Higgins playing Julia, but also a grotty, simple conceit in the plot as she lures victims into her fleshy lover’s clutches, so he can feed upon them to regain his strength. Mostly, it’s effective. Clive Barker would never be as innovative as a John Carpenter or Wes Craven, but his ambition and confidence in detailing a killer idea shows through a workmanlike approach to narrative. As a result, Hellraiser can still surprise. And the practical effects are wonderful, if inconsistent.
Despite spectacular entrances, the merry band of Cenobites are a mixed bag and date the film. “Chatterer” is a nasty piece of work, but “Butterball”? He’s more likely to cause giggles these days and the “Female” could just about get away with appearing in Doctor Who, but Doug Bradley’s Pinhead is a majestic, elegant horror icon that could run rings around Freddy Krueger. When he promises to “to tear your soul apart”, you’ll believe this horror rock-star. Bonus points: Hellraiser is already a decent film without Pinhead, who poses a memorable threat, but he isn’t the only one. He isn’t even the main story, which is a body-horror flick in the tradition of David Cronenberg, dripping with a metaphor for infidelity and sexual thirst. The Fly crossed with 50 Shades of Grey, perhaps.
Images of the Cenobite torture chamber come off like a plastic version of Leatherface’s more terrifying kitchen, but why aren’t the Frank Cotton effects spoken of more? Bob Keen’s work is extraordinary, on a similar level to The Thing and the best body transformation effects since American Werewolf in London. Bob’s team also worked on Event Horizon, which should have been as revolting as Hellraiser except it insisted on pulling its punches. The only way to appreciate his work there is by using the pause button. Not so here as Frank rebuilds from a zombie-like skeleton, the detail is disgustingly good and inescapable, and Oliver Smith’s performance as monster Frank is glorious. Horror like this is always inconceivable. That’s kinda the point, but still, the fleshy skeletal figure clawing his way across the floor is uncomfortably real and a contrast to the supernatural weirdness of Pinhead’s gang.
The first half at least is a nasty, grungy little masterpiece. As the narrative wears on to an overblown finale, which appears to betray the internal logic, there is more than a little clunkiness. Although, how could it not go for a contrived orgy? And the last shot is a marvellous bit of utter lunacy. It isn't a jumpy-jump-boo film and instead, Hellraiser is successful at generating a palpable sense of foreboding and disgust, the central story having more substance than you might expect from a film with such a notorious reputation. The Cenobites are amazing, but are the secondary threat; a narrative ticking clock, their entrance inevitable. You came for the Cenobites, you'll stay for Frank and you’ll never forget Pinhead.