Hellraiser. 1987. Directed & Written by Clive Barker.
Starring Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Sean Chapman, Oliver Smith, Robert Hines, Frank Baker, Kenneth Nelson, & Gay Baynes.
Rivdel Films/Cinemarque Entertainment BV/Film Futures
Rated R. 94 minutes.
Clive Barker is one of the most unique horror writers in literature, his perspectives and the way he understands the horror of people just as well as he does that of demonic spirits and other monsters are what make his brand of scary so visceral, even if it’s just his words on the page. He holds power as a writer, in his ability to cut to the core of humanity, no matter how deep into the supernatural he winds up going in any given story.
Starting as his novella The Hellbound Heart, the story became his own screenplay for Hellraiser; his directorial debut. And he took the genre world by storm, thrilling and disturbing in equal measure, and these aspects of the film aren’t mutually exclusive. Part of the film’s excellence comes out of its taboo-ness, its depiction of everything from abusive love to the sometimes dangerous links between sex and death, pain and pleasure.
Ultimately, it’s the utter existential horror within a film dealing in the supernatural that sells Hellraiser as so horrifically effective. No matter how you feel about it, regardless you’ll remember the first time you saw it. Barker immediately drops us into this hellish landscape of his creation, never once letting go up to the final frame.
This is like something ripped from a Freudian nightmare. Frank (Sean Chapman) is a man interested solely in hedonism, living his life in pursuit of the flesh. To a hideous degree. So much so, he becomes the personification not only of the sex drive in man, but also the death drive; speeding headlong into death, self-destruction, all via lust. This journey into the heart of pleasure leads him only to the terror of death, a violent and painful corporeal reckoning. This calls to mind la petite mort – the little death – which links the concept of the orgasm to death, a loss of consciousness, a brief, little death, as it were. Frank experiences much more; a real death, a big death.
Within all this is the idea of knowledge, as a potentially dangerous force. The BDSM aesthetic of the Cenobites shows off the dichotomy of sex and death. But it’s their purpose as characters in Hellraiser that speak to knowledge in this manner. Here, knowledge is of carnal origin, a transformative power, in that it is a painful process. To know everything, one must experience everything: the good and the bad, sweet with sour, and of course, pain alongside pleasure.
“Come to daddy”
A huge theme, obvious with the sopping wetness of Barker’s gory imagery, is that of the desecration of bodies. The story juxtaposes lust for the body v. the bloody destruction of the body. This is mirrored in the larger theme at play, concerning abusive, dominant love; BDSM is a perfectly healthy thing for people to enjoy, so long as they’re safe, consensual, et cetera. However, BDSM can often be perverted into a one-sided, abusive relationship, where the signs of BDSM are present yet the intentions and respect for one partner is completely gone.
Frank and Julia (Clare Higgins) represent the ultimate destructive love, built on lust. The power of their lusty love reaches from beyond the grave, the intense physical connection they share driving her to gruesome acts. In a macabre irony, sex and pleasure is what kills Frank, in turn what allows him his return to the corporeal world: Julia uses lust, the gaze and sex drive of men, to exert her own death drive, which also leads to the reincarnation of her dead lover.
Frank’s need for blood is symbolic of the draining effect an abusive, brutal relationship can have on a woman. Although Julia doesn’t give her own, she must give Frank blood he needs to become whole again, as it is in abusive relationships; the abuser uses the abused to make themselves feel whole, or good. Frank, then, is a metaphor of the abusive lover, surviving on the blood and pain and suffering of others, at the real cost of his subjugated lover.
Barker goes hard at Christianity, poking around at the idea of BDSM relating to seeming celebration around the crucifixion of Christ that religion seems to perpetuate, particularly the Roman Catholic Church. What he does best in this film is subverting Christian iconography, turning the Cenobites into not just a group of supernatural creatures from a psychosexual realm, but a pseudo-religious convent built on sexual terror. First, we see the Christmas light shrine of a Jesus statuette in Frank’s room. Then there’s Larry catching his hand on a nail, bleeding profusely, mimicking and mocking the wounds of Christ nailed on the cross. And finally, the above quote from Frank inside his brother Larry’s skin, which is the shortest verse in the Bible; this is linked to the tale of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the grave after his weeping.
In addition to viciously satirising Christianity, Baker’s film merges body horror with the supernatural. The house becomes a carnival of terror, the tone of the film is dark and dangerous feeling like anything could be around the next corner, foreboding dread surrounds the characters. It’s the nasty gore, the bodies being ripped and torn and generally brutalised, and the menacingly oppressive atmosphere, that compliments all the heavy themes within the story. No space in Hellraiser is ever safe, there’s no rest for either the audience or the characters.
You can’t go wrong with this film. It’s one of the greatest of all time, and definitely out of the ’80s. This is perfect for a dark, stormy night, when the wing is howling at the door and in through the cracks, and you’re already feeling paranoid. Pop this one in, let the cathartic fear commence.