With the spooky season upon us, I felt it was time to fix a personal horror movie blindspot and dive into the world of Hellraiser. With a new version of the iconic monster movie on the scene this year and my editor being a devout Hellraiser fanatic, it made sense to give the classic ‘80s movie a try and see if I came out the other side with my job still intact (Editor: we’ll see).
I went into the experience knowing next to nothing about the original Hellraiser movie, which I think was the best course of action. My knowledge stretched as far as seeing a picture of Pinhead before and knowing there is some kind of magical box that unleashes this creepy-looking dude and his pals, the Cenobites.
In the years since its release in 1987, Hellraiser has become a cult hit and has spawned multiple sequels. The release of Hellraiser 2022 marks the eleventh entry in the franchise, so the original must be pretty amazing, right?
To put it simply, yes, it is. And that’s not just my desire to remain employed talking. Hellraiser is a genuinely fascinating, balls-to-the-wall horror movie full of gnarly kills, disturbing visuals, and some truly awful acting performances that are so bad they’re a joy to watch.
Hellraiser tells the story of married couple Julia (Claire Higgins) and Larry (Andrew Robinson) who move into a property previously occupied by Frank (Sean Chapman), Larry’s brother and Julia’s secret lover. When Julia discovers the grotesque, partially-formed body of Frank in the attic, she begins a quest to feed him blood to nourish him back to full strength while a band of mysterious creatures attempt to return Frank to their hellish dimension.
Sure, Hellraiser has its flaws, but it wears them on its sleeve so proudly you simply have to respect the bravado. At its core, though, there’s a genuinely brilliant concept, so weirdly wonderful that it makes you wish more people were taking risks on original stories in the film industry today.
Hellraiser is essentially what happens when you cross a body horror with soap opera romance movie vibes; the former deliciously gruesome, the latter spectacularly cringeworthy. Whatever direction it’s heading in, this is a film that wastes no time in getting started and doesn’t relent in its pursuit of pleasure and pain throughout.
Incredible special effects work brings to life the horrifying, walking corpse of Uncle Frank and the Cenobites hunting him down. I’m genuinely shocked that this movie didn’t get more recognition at the time for its practical effects, the kind of which makes you lament the overuse of CGI in the modern era.
Clive Barker directed this bizarre movie based on a book of his own creation – The Hellbound Heart – and quite frankly, I’d like to know what the hell was going through his head. I feel psychologically scarred just from watching Hellraiser, so to have conjured up these unsettling ideas and brought them to life in such grim and graphic fashion is both a commendable feat and a concerning cry for help.
It’s a story full of gaping holes of logic; I mean, it’s pretty fucking easy to actually get rid of the Cenobites in the end, all you have to do is put the puzzle back together. Then again, it wouldn’t be much of a tense thriller movie if everything was fixed so quickly, would it?
Perhaps most strange of all, though, is the decision to make the Cenobites a sub-plot in their own movie. The fantasy movie villains are nowhere to be seen for the first two acts, and then they’re suddenly creeping up the place with all the intensity of a drunk stranger on a night out chatting shit to you about heaven and hell.
Speaking of creepy guys, who does Frank think he is? Not only does he unleash the full fury of hell upon the Earth, but he also seduces his brother’s wife like some sleazy lothario and persuades her to feed him unwitting victims to bring him back to life. That said, the plot twist of him killing Julia was fantastically satisfying, so fair play for that one Frank.
I want to end this descent into madness by saying the climactic scene, which sees Frank’s face being pulled apart while he utters the words “Jesus wept” is one of the most inspiring moments in cinematic history. The ludicrous choice of dialogue combined with the deadpan line delivery and such gory visuals is just genius.
Ultimately, my editor was right. Every single one of you crazy Hellraiser fans was right. This movie should not work at all. It’s utterly bonkers and deeply disturbing, but it’s bloody amazing. Now, time to watch the other ten movies in the series and see what other pleasures await.
If you like Hellraiser, why not marathon some other classic horror franchises with our guide to watching the Halloween movies in order. Or, for a different kind of monster, here’s our list of the best vampire movies.