Thirty years ago, the soul of the horror genre was torn apart. Based upon Clive Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart, Hellraiser spawned a handful of sequels, a graphic novel, and even a scrapped video game. With the sort of out-of-touch ranting that has become typical of mainstream critics engaging with horror films, Roger Ebert called Hellraiser “a movie without wit, style, or reason” upon its release. On the contrary, there’s plenty of pleasure to be found in the 1987 film, if one would only open the box.
Shady hedonist Frank Cotton procures a Chinese puzzle box with the understanding that it acts as a portal to the ultimate state of pleasure. Unfortunately for Frank, the portal is one to what we know as Hell, a Hell that defines pleasure as only attainable through pain, administered by its guardians, the Cenobites. Upon solving the box, hooked chains tether into his flesh and tear him apart before the Cenobites usher him to an unholy realm, leaving no traces behind. It’s here that we meet Frank’s brother Rory and his sister-in-law (Rory’s wife) Julia. The couple moves into the same home where Frank’s demonic ritual previously took place before he vanished. Julia embarks on her own bargain for gratification as she sits alone in the attic room, pining for her former lover, revealed to be Frank. Through a strange twist of fate Frank is able to escape from the dark realm and return to the home, though his intact body hasn’t quite caught up with him. He is a wretched, raw creature, and requires blood in order to become whole again. Julia reluctantly agrees to do what needs to be done in order to please the man she loves. Naturally, the Cenobites are none too pleased at Frank’s departure from their pain party, and when Rory’s teenage daughter Kirsty shows up at the home, things get even more complicated.
Authors of contemporary thinkpieces praising intellectual themes in horror as if they were a new trend would do well to revisit Hellraiser and try engaging with its more scandalous sequences. The film adheres to a running theme of the confluence of “pain and pleasure, indivisible.” Julia and Frank’s lovemaking sessions are rough but passionate. Her orgasm is juxtaposed with Larry’s gruesome hand injury. In fact, the rendezvous between Frank and Julia was originally supposed to be more hardcore, according to Barker’s DVD commentary: “We did a version of this scene which had some spanking in it and the MPAA was not very appreciative of that. Lord knows where the spanking footage is. Somebody has it somewhere…The MPAA told me I was allowed two consecutive buttock thrusts from Frank but three is deemed obscene!” Barker’s art often deals not only in sexuality, but in its limits and potential. Beginning with the self-destructive nature of Frank’s unending search for a sensory nirvana and continuing with Julia’s wielding of her own sexuality to lure potential victims to her home for slaughter, sexuality is elevated beyond scandalous imagery. As bodies join together or break their embrace, so do the power dynamics fluctuate between the participants. Like the copious bloodletting in Hellraiser, the eroticism is transgressive.
Event Horizon (1997), Dark City (1998), The Cell (2000), and Hellboy (2004). Horror in the late '80s was mostly comprised of Freddy, Jason, and Xenomorphs. At the time, a Gothic tale with a sadomasochism bent was groundbreaking, though Doug Bradley didn’t recognize it during the filming process, according to a Dread Central interview: “I didn’t really see the big picture at the time, and I certainly didn’t think my character would be part of a franchise either. What I did know is because it was Clive’s material, we were doing something really exciting and special. But no, I had no idea that we’d be having this conversation some 23 years later.” Who knew? Though several sequels and spinoff projects followed it, Barker’s debut feature film remains the creative apex of the entire franchise.
Hellraiser is currently available on Blu-Ray and VOD. The film is also streaming on Netflix as of this posting.