4 out of 5
Directed by: Clive Barker
As you inevitably proceed about your obsessive comparison of my reviews to Roger Ebert’s, it will likely make your meetcute fanfic task easier to know that I essentially agree with Rog: Hellraiser is a terrible movie. Even upon my first viewing, way diddly-o-back when I was educating myself on horror, it struck me as ridiculously dumb at points, and very try hard with its black leather and bad boy Frank and “Jesus wept”s. Many horror movies are dumb of course, and this registered then as it certainly does now, having viewed many, many dumb (and terrible) movies since, but Hellraiser is a bit easier to knock in this regard because director / writer Clive Barker’s style suggests he takes this stuff very seriously, and that it’s “art,” and that it’s meaning – which is hazy – is actually not hazy but very real stuff that takes longer to explain than, like, ‘some people like bondage.’
However, what also struck me when watching Hellraiser that first time – and, again, even now, on my Nth playthrough – is how rock solid its visuals are. Not just in terms of gore effects, which are of that upper tier of Evil Dead / Dead Alive low budget wizardry of groovy grossness, but in terms of just viewing the movie as a sequence of visuals, and events. Listening to Clive Barker speak, and sifting through some of his books, I don’t know if I’d say he’s the most eloquent dude – sorry – but the imagery he concocts in those texts, and his paintings, and in this movie – are otherworldly. And if you combine that with the very ending shot of Hellraiser, which could suggest that the whole thing is meant to be viewed as this otherworldly, senseless mess of soap opera and grand guignol, it’s okay. It’s… better than okay. Again, there’s the niggling that you’re applying that logic on your own – Barker stumbles in to some interesting structural choices that, as they build up, seem more like flailing than concise filmmaking – but regardless, the movie kicks over into its nonsense tone very early, when wife Claire (Julia Cotton) has a hilarious Cinemax sex dream of her husband’s brother, Frank (Sean Chapman), and so if you make it past that… you can sort of deal with her not freaking out when she finds a skinless Frank in the attic and telling her he needs fresh bodies to regrow his skin so they can be together again. He mentions Cenobites – and you know them, they’re the Pinhead-led freakos that came to be the Jason and Freddy of this series – but she doesn’t know them and, again doesn’t really blink at that name drop, and then she pretty instantly jumps to black widow mode, luring men upstairs to donate their flesh.
Frank got this way by playing with a puzzle box – which is another somewhat unthought-through Barker device – and then falling prey to these Cenobites, beckoned by said box. Husband Larry (Andrew Robinson) seems like a good guy, and daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) is rather oblivious, but gets to become the final girl anyway.
The effects are still pretty fantastic, and the movie is still terrible. But great. It exists in a bizarro, self-convinced realm of its own, buoyed beyond simple B-movie status by a great sense of imagination. If Barker had been more willing to tap into the unknowns of his ideas, instead of applying half-understood explanations to them, Hellraiser could’ve pushed past its scripting clunkiness into something quite genius.