Schlocktoberfest 18: Hellraiser
Apologies for taking so long between posts. It’s been a rough week of training, and this weekend was spent at Chiller Theater Expo. So there’ll be a post for that with photos, as soon as I catch up on movie posts. I’ve been watching ’em, just not posting them!
It’s amazing what you can do with a relatively low budget if you have the right script and the right imagination. I’m not a huge fan of Clive Barker- for every Hellraiser there’s a Nightbreed– but this film should shrug off its silly sequels and be recognized for the classic it is. Based on the novella The Hellbound Heart, it conjures an underworld ruled by cenobites, explorers on the extreme verges of pleasure and pain. Devils to some. Angels to others. They’ll tear your soul apart.
The film’s success lies in how long it makes us wait before seeing them. It begins at a foreign bazaar, where a grubby yet sensual man purchases a gold-inlaid wooden cube from a rather creepy vendor. One fade later and we’re with a strange little family- Dad, the bitchy new wife, and her stepdaughter- moving into the old house they’ve inherited. As they converse while bringing things in, we learn that the father has an estranged brother named Frank, who’s a real dirtbag; he was crashing there for a time, and they find an upstairs room littered with filth. The stuff ol’ dirty Frank leaves in his sleazy wake.
The story takes off when Dad cuts his hand on a nail and spills some on the floorboards; for while Frank is nowhere to be seen, his hungry spirit still resides in the room, where he used the forbidden box. He feeds on the fresh blood, and grows from the inside out into a mess of flesh and bone, hungry for more. He hides in the shadows until Julia, his brother’s new wife, happens in… this isn’t the first time they’ve bumped into each other, and her desire for him is so great that she overlooks the fact that he resembles a skeleton covered in gelatinous meatloaf, and begins luring in horny men for him to feed on. It sounds ridiculous, but it works because the gory effects haven’t dated at all. Frank is a guy in a sloppy meat suit pulling himself along on the floor, and the copious amounts of pus and goo hide any shortcomings the latex might have. It’s still revolting, 21 years later.
The trouble really starts when young Kirsty finds what’s living in the attic; she never liked Uncle Frank, and he’s just as sleazy without skin as he was before. Luckily she finds his puzzle box, and throws it out the window when he tries to get his bloody mitts on her. She grabs it as she flees the house, and that night she is haunted by hideous dreams; in her sleep, she solves the puzzle box. Suddenly the very fabric of reality is torn asunder, as the black-clad cenobites answer the call.
Pinhead is the unfortunate name given to the leader of these cenobites- a name oddly akin to sybarite- clad in a black leather S&M apron and festooned with nails hammered into his face in a grid pattern. The term “cenobite” has to do with monks, and these creatures worship at the altar of pain. They want to take poor little Kirsty back to their plane of existence, to show her the most painful zenith of experience, but she sells out Uncle Frank- who escaped their clutches somehow- and they begrudgingly spare her, if she’ll lead them to their prey. The cenobites are the most memorable part of the film, and here (as in Hellraiser 2: Hellbound, the only worthy sequel) they are not slasher villains but bizarre avatars beyond our contemplation. As Kirsty cries in terror, the leader growls, “Dry your tears! It’s a waste of good suffering.”
“Pinhead” is the best remembered of the bunch, played to perfection by Doug Bradley. But the rest of the gang are just as memorable. Known only by fan nicknames, they are “Chatterbox,” the eyeless beast with his chattering teeth bared in a lipless mouth; “Butterball,” a fat neckless slug with a gaping maw and slavering tongue, sort of like Jabba the Hut with legs, and the female cenobite, whose throat is a bloody gash held open with hooks, and resembles an axe wound, vile pun intended. The gate to their dominion is guarded by a Lovecraftian jumble of flesh that chases Kirsty back to our realm, snapping at her with twisted jaws.
The actual plot seems like your typical slasher, as Julia keeps bringing sleazy victims for Frank to feed on, but it has some sweet little twists. The cenobites get their due, and the puzzle box is once again cast to Earth to lure those who dare seek pleasures beyond the mundane. It’s amazing that this was made for less than a million dollars. While the visual effects when the cenobites leave and arrive are rather cheap, the costumes, make-up and latex work is still excellent. Of course they are remaking this, and I hope they keep Doug Bradley as “Pinhead.” With all the make-up required he should still be young enough. If they use the same script and just get rid of the cheesy energy effects and ’80s hair, it could be great.