Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Clive Barker
Written by: Clive Barker
(based on the novel THE HELLBOUND HEART by Clive Barker)
Starring: Ashley Laurence, Andrew Robinson, Claire Higgins, Sean Chapman, Doug Bradley, Nicolas Vince, Simon Bamford, Grace Kirby & Oliver Smith
Clive Barker is one imaginative guy. Though he gained popularity through his BOOKS OF BLOOD anthologies, Barker burst onto the horror filmmaking scene with an adaptation of his own THE HELLBOUND HEART. In bringing his nightmarish novel to the screen, Barker knew exactly how he wanted it to play with audiences. Packed with gruesome imagery and creative ideas, Barker’s directorial debut is a dark, brooding take on the legend of Pandora’s Box. It’s also one of the best horror films to come out of the 1980’s.
Larry Cotton, his wife, Julia, and their daughter, Kirsty, have just arrived in England. Moving into his old family home, Larry accidentally cuts his hand open while moving a mattress. A single drop of Larry’s blood somehow resurrects his deceased brother, Frank. Julia had a lusty affair with Frank and would do anything for him. Anything includes sacrificing unsuspecting men to the skinless shell of her former lover hiding in the attic. With each victim, Frank gets more flesh on his bones. However, Kirsty begins to suspect that her stepmother is up to no good and comes across the Lament Configuration, a puzzle box that summons demons (known as Cenobites) who happen to be looking for Frank.
Before we get to see the Cenobites in their full gory glory, Clive Barker sets up a nice atmosphere of dread and unease. HELLRAISER is one of the few movies that I remember making me feel dirty when I watched it as a teenager and it still has that effect today. Atmosphere is prevalent through every frame. Blood and torn pieces of flesh become commonplace set decorations. Barker showcases enough horrific imagery to make the skinless Frank seem rather tame in comparison to the constant suffering, disgusting mutilations, and sadomasochistic demons.
Speaking of which, Barker unleashes a vision of Hell unlike any we’ve seen before on film. With hooks, chains, and various hanging body parts, you get the idea that the leatherclad Cenobites get a sick sexual pleasure out of the violence they inflict upon others and the same can be said for their victims. Of course, the most iconic of these demons is Pinhead. However, the rest of the Cenobites look just as frightening, if not more so. My favorite is definitely Chatter. Even a still image of this teeth-chattering freak is enough to send shivers down my spine.
As far as performances are concerned, Ashley Laurence is excellent as Kirsty Cotton. She’s a final girl who stands alongside Laurie Strode in the HALLOWEEN series and Nancy Thompson in the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films. Clare Higgins is delightfully evil as the stepmother Julia. Though her character could have been played as a one-dimensional baddie from the start, Barker puts actual effort into making her human. We see her struggling between her husband and his literally blood-thirsty brother. As she keeps killing for Frank, we see the trauma and darkness emerging through Higgins’s performance. Frank comes from the combined effort of Sean Chapman as the human form and Oliver Smith as the skinless version. He’s a bloody villain to remember and his freaky appearance certainly helps. Meanwhile, Doug Bradley shines as Pinhead. Though this character only receives a handful of moments, his dialogue and delivery is flawless (as well as endlessly quotable). The only real shaky performance comes from Andrew Robinson as Larry. Though this character is a bit of an unlikable wuss from the get-go, Robinson’s unconvincing, wooden delivery certainly doesn’t help matters.
As amazing, dark, and dread-fuelled as HELLRAISER is, with the constant feeling that we’re watching a nightmare on the screen, the script seems to run out of steam during the final minutes of the finale when Kirsty finds herself trying to escape the grasp of the Cenobites. What was formerly an original and boldly creative near-masterpiece of horror turns into a silly laser show. It’s not enough to ruin the film, especially seeing how well-paced and insane everything has been up to that point (including one of the goriest and most memorable kills in horror movie history), but it does put a slight damper on the conclusion.
HELLRAISER is a must-see for any self-respecting horror fan. Clive Barker is a superior to Stephen King as far as I’m concerned in his sheer originality and terrifying ideas. With this film, he brought a vision of hell that had never been seen before on the screen, combining sensual pleasure with extreme pain for a haunting experience. Though one shaky performance and some iffy effects (in the finale) keep the film from perfection, HELLRAISER is a well-deserved classic in the horror genre.