AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: 26th October, from ARROW VIDEO in HELLRAISER: THE SCARLET BOX, a limited edition run of 5,000 four disc sets
RUNNING TIME: 94 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In Morocco, cruel adventurer and sensualist Frank Cotton buys a puzzle box from a dealer. After solving the puzzle in his home in London, demons appear and hooked chains emerge to tear him apart. Frank’s brother, Larry, moves into his childhood home to rebuild his strained relationship with his second wife, Julia, who had an affair with Frank. Larry’s teenage daughter, Kirsty, has chosen not to live with her stepmother and moves into her own place. Larry cuts his hand, and blood drips on the attic floor under which is the remnants of Frank’s body. The blood partially resurrects Frank, and Julia agrees to fully restore him by killing men she picks up and brings back to the house….
“Call yourself a horror fan?” you’ll no doubt cry when I state that it’s been at least 15 years since I’ve seen Hellraiser. All I can answer to that is: “Too many films, too little time” and that, in the meantime, I did buy the old Anchor Bay Lament Configuration DVD box set but kept having to take it back because of a faulty disc [there’s nothing worse than sitting down to watch a trilogy of films, the first one playing fine, then the second one not playing properly at all!], even after multiple replacements after which I eventually gave up, I did try to watch my old video but it got stuck in the video player, and I did try to record the film twice off TV but for some reason it didn’t record. All this caused me to wonder if there really were Cenobites in some other dimension who were trying to stop me seeing Hellraiser. Watching it after such a long time, courtesy of Arrow Video’s magnificent release, was therefore quite an odd experience. Bits and pieces came flooding back to me in rapid succession, but the film was a bit different from how I remembered it – more low-key, more leisurely, more [though this probably sounds odd] subtle, even more intelligent. While there are obvious moments which seem like concessions, for the most part Hellraiser tends to depart from usual horror tropes [at least for a film made in 1986], and it doesn’t really try to frighten or thrill in the obvious horror movie fashion; it instead provides an unrelenting atmosphere of dread and perversity which is very powerful and well achieved as it tells its tale of sex, love [well, kind of] and death. Saying all this, I don’t think the film quite achieves true classic status despite its iconic nature – it does have some sloppiness here and there, and things that could have been done better – though of course it’s easy to forgive writer/director Clive Barker for some of this, as this was his debut and he had a seriously low budget to work with.
Hellraiser was originally supposed to be called The Hellbound Heart after the novella [which was actually written with a film in mind] upon which it was based, but New World Pictures decided the title sounded too much like a romance. Barker suggested Sadomasochists From Beyond the Grave. He changed a few elements from his novella, notably the character of Kirsty now being Larry’s teenage daughter rather than a woman in love with Larry [to presumably give the audience somebody to more identify with] and the end fate of the box being different, but otherwise stuck quite closely to it. Hellraiser was made with considerably limited means, from the main, real house set often only allowing room for one camera and one angle for a scene, to the money running out for some of the special effects and Barker and a mate having to animate these scenes by hand over a single weekend, though New World, liking what they saw, provided money to create and shoot the resurrection scene. Originally, the opening sequence featured the Butterball cenobite reassembling Frank’s mutilated face on the attic floor, but once the decision was made to emphasize Pinhead in press material, and after Barker decided he didn’t like the effects, it was reshot with Pinhead. Simon Bamford, who played Butterball, was never informed and for years thought, wrongly, that the hand piecing Frank’s face together was his. The MPAA insisted on cuts to the first hammer murder, Kirsty sticking her hand into Frank’s belly exposing his guts, Frank being torn into pieces by the Cenobites’ hooks, and the sex scene between Julia and Frank. Barker later said that the cuts improved the film, which must be why a longer version has never been released. Here in the UK we suffered further cuts to the hammer kill. Hellraiser was something of a sensation in the horror community and made far more than its budget back.
Those opening string chords from composer Christopher Young may be icily beautiful, but at the beginning Hellraiser really assails you with shots of hooks ripping into flesh, chains hanging containing viscera and body parts, and parts of a face being picked up and almost put back together. The track through the house, after Frank has opened the box, to reveal that the room he was in is now filled with hanging chains filled with bits of Frank, is great stuff. Immediately, the Cenobites make an incredible impression with their ritually mutilated faces and fetishistic black leather gear, looking like they’ve emerged from the deepest recesses of some S and M lover’s brain. However, the really interesting thing about this first instalment of what became a very lengthy and at times quite ludicrous franchise, is that after this opening scene, Pinhead and his pals don’t then show up again for almost a whole hour, something I’d totally forgotten about, though not something I missed very much after a while. In fact, thinking about the story as I type, you could probably remove the Cenobites from the tale with only minor alterations and it wouldn’t really suffer, though that’s not to say that I don’t like them! Barker then really gets his exposition over and done quickly and often with some style, most notably when the flashback of Julia and Frank’s affair is intercut with Larry and two workmen trying to get a settee up the stairs and finishes with Larry cutting himself and the blood reaching the dead Frank. The film swiftly shifts to becoming primarily a weird love triangle and a very twisted….well, thinking about it now maybe I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a love story, but it’s certainly partly one.
The main thrust of the plot soon becomes Julia gradually reviving her past lover Frank more and more with human blood [in fact Frank is in some ways a vampire here]. To me the film has more of a grotty low budget 70’s exploitation movie feel during many of these scenes, especially when Julia’s picks up men to batter to death with a hammer back home, though elsewhere the movie really does scream the 80’s with some of its hairdos and outfits [and who on earth made the decision for someone to wear a hilarious multi-coloured check jumper right at the end?- it’s very distracting!],and its special effects. These sometimes wary wildly in quality – the animated lights coming out of and going in to the box would have looked bad in a kid’s TV programme of the time but Frank’s awakening [love the heart having “life” pumped into it!] and his subsequent grisly stages actually look very good indeed. It’s only in the film’s final section where it feels necessary to resort to the usual “cliff-hanger” type stuff, especially a none-too-convincing battle with a two headed creature which just seems thrown in there to provide the audience with a conventionally thrilling finale. The real climax really takes place before all this and has the real stench of human fear despite having a character who is wearing another’s skin.
Having some of the cast dubbed with American accents is jarring, and there are some flaws and inconsistencies in the narrative, like Kirsty solving the problem of how to open the puzzle box within seconds, and how the hell does nobody seem to smell all those dead bodies?! I also wondered why Kirsty isn’t ripped to shreds upon opening the cube, though I guess you’re supposed to infer that people who aren’t expressly seeking the so-called pleasures the box has to offer will be leniently treated in Hell. The Cenobites are amoral and have lost the distinction between pain and pleasure, but aren’t really evil or even intentionally malevolent, being more like gurus who teach through pain. It is the cruel, sadistic Frank who is the real villain, and he really is a reprehensible character, from nailing rats to walls to, it is intimated, abusing Kirsty when she was younger. He’s become desensitised to the world and opens the box because he wants to “feel” something again, totally unaware that he’s just attempting to make up for the human emotions that he doesn’t have. He doesn’t really give a damn about Kirsty, but Kirsty certainly loves Frank, and madly. He brings out in her emotions that nice, safe Larry just can’t compete with, and she will do anything to be with him. Hellraiser is quite a cold film, and we don’t really care about Julia, let alone Frank, who is so horrible that I almost begun to feel for the Cenobites trying to teach this totally unfeeling scumbag a lesson, but it benefits from its almost [there is an amusing dinner table exchange] entire lack of humour, which is almost entirely relegated to this exchange which takes place at the dinner table:
Clare Higgins really has the juiciest part here and she makes it as convincing as she can. I distinctly remember my first viewing of Hellraiser and being shocked that Dirty Harry’s vicious, so-totally-convincing psychopath was a good guy here, though he is allowed to go full-on “bad” towards the end. Barker’s direction is mostly very assured, though he can’t really get a good performance out of Ashley Lawrence, nor even Sean Chapman I would say. The cinematography by Richard Marden, despite being restricted, is quite stylish, with nice use of shadows in many scenes and one really well pulled off sequence where we move back and forth between two people in different areas of the house. This helps to prevent Hellraiser, which mostly takes place in said house [though there some nice exterior shots where buildings seem to mirror the designs of the cube and its interior] from feeling like a stage play. Electronic band Coil originally composed a score for the film, but New World rejected it. Christopher Young’s orchestral replacement is very strong nonetheless, full of menace, despair and, oddly, beauty. The highlight is the cue for Frank’s resurrection, a macabre waltz which becomes more and more dramatic. Though it does contain monsters and the odd “boo” moment, Barker’s quite subversive, even slightly philosophical, look at the horrors of the soul and, to me, warning against excess [just consider Frank’s character], remains a really rather different sort of horror film, which I guess is why, despite it sometimes seeming a bit awkward, and with a script in particular that could have done with a final “going over”, it remains very popular. Saying that, after seeing it again after all these years, I’m not sure if I’ll return to it very often, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I didn’t appreciate it.
Check out Ross Hughes’s review of Hellraiser.
Arrow’s Blu-ray of Hellraiser, as contained in their Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box boxset, is of examplary quality, rich in definition and texture yet still seeming like a film from the 80’s, and comes with a bucketload of extras, including a commentary which hasn’t been heard since the film’s laserdisc release, plus the first part of the very good [though missing Clive; odd, as he was on the Nightbreed special features] Leviathan: The Story Of Hellraiser documentary [apparently shorter than its previous incarnation, though it’s still an hour and a half long]. Also fascinating is the featurette on the rejected Coil score, replete with some excerpts, which, though I love Young’s work on Hellraiser, did make me wonder if New World should have let Coil’s work be used.
The set has apparently already sold out, but it seems that Arrow intend to release the films as standalone Blu-rays at some point soon.
4-DISC LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS
*Brand new 2K restorations of Hellraiser, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, and Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth
*Uncompressed PCM Stereo 2.0 and Lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 sound for Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II
*DTS-HD MA 2.0 sound for Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth
*English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for all three films
*Limited Edition bonus disc
*Exclusive 200-page hardback book with new writing from Clive Barker archivists Phil and Sarah Stokes
*20-page booklet featuring never-before-seen original Hellraiser concept art
*Limited Edition packaging with new artwork from Gilles Vranckx
*Set of 5 exclusive art cards
*Fold-out reversible poster
DISC 1 – HELLRAISER
*Brand new 2K restoration approved by director of photography Robin Vidgeon
*Audio commentary with writer/director Clive Barker
*Audio commentary with Barker and actress Ashley Laurence
*Leviathan: The Story of Hellraiser – brand new version of the definitive documentary on the making of Hellraiser, featuring interviews with key cast and crew members
*Being Frank: Sean Chapman on Hellraiser – actor Sean Chapman talks candidly about playing the character of Frank Cotton in Barker’s original
*Soundtrack Hell: The Story of the Abandoned Coil Score – Coil member Stephen Thrower on the Hellraiser score that almost was
*Hellraiser: Resurrection – vintage featurette including interviews with Clive Barker, actors Doug Bradley and Ashley Laurence, special make-up effects artist Bob Keen and others
*Under the Skin: Doug Bradley on Hellraiser
*Original EPK featuring on-set interviews with cast and crew
*Draft Screenplays [BD-ROM content]
*Trailers and TV Spots
DISC 2 – HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II
*Brand new 2K restoration approved by director of photography Robin Vidgeon
*Audio Commentary with director Tony Randel and writer Peter Atkins
*Audio Commentary with Randel, Atkins and actress Ashley Laurence
*Leviathan: The Story of Hellbound: Hellraiser II – brand new version of the definitive documentary on the making of Hellbound, featuring interviews with key cast and crew members
*Being Frank: Sean Chapman on Hellbound – actor Sean Chapman talks about reprising the role of Frank Cotton in the first Hellraiser sequel
*Surgeon Scene – the home video world premiere of this legendary, never before-seen excised sequence from Hellbound, sourced from a VHS workprint
*Lost in the Labyrinth – vintage featurette including interviews with Barker, Randel, Keen, Atkins and others
*Under the Skin: Doug Bradley on Hellbound: Hellraiser II
*On-set interview with Clive Barker
*On-set interviews with cast and crew
*Rare and unseen storyboards
*Draft Screenplay [BD-ROM content]
*Trailers and TV Spots
DISC 3 – HELLRAISER III: HELL ON EARTH
*Brand new 2K restoration of the Original Theatrical Version [93 mins]
*Alternate Unrated Version [97 mins]
*Brand new audio commentary with writer Peter Atkins
*Audio commentary with director Anthony Hickox and Doug Bradley
*Hell on Earth: The Story of Hellraiser III – making-of documentary featuring interviews with Atkins, Keen and actor Ken Carpenter
*Time with Terri – brand new interview with actress Paula Marshall
*Under the Skin: Doug Bradley on Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth
*Raising Hell on Earth – archival interview with Hickox
*On-set interviews with Barker and Bradley
*Never-before-seen Hellraiser III SFX dailies
*Hellraiser III comic book adaptation [Disc gallery]
DISC 4 – THE CLIVE BARKER LEGACY – LIMITED EDITION EXCLUSIVE
*Clive Barker short films Salomé and The Forbidden
*Books of Blood & Beyond: The Literary Works of Clive Barker – horror author David Gatward provides a tour through Barker’s written work, from the first Books of Blood to the recent The Scarlet Gospels
*Hellraiser: Evolutions – a brand new documentary looking at the evolution of the hit horror franchise and its enduring legacy, featuring interviews with Scott Derrickson [director, Hellraiser: Inferno], Rick Bota [director, Hellraiser: Hellseeker, Deader and Hellworld], Stuart Gordon [director, Re-Animator, From Beyond] and others
*The Hellraiser Chronicles: A Question of Faith – short film