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Review: Hellraiser (1987)

Hellraiser (1987)

Directed by: Clive Barker

Premise: Julia, a restless and unfaithful wife (Claire Higgins), is reunited with Frank, her lover and brother-in-law (Oliver Smith), but finds that he is a zombie living the attic of the family house, having recently been resurrected from the beyond. Julia begins to murder people and feed them to Frank in order to restore his body and gradually loses her grip on morality and sanity. At the same time, a group of supernatural torture artists led by Pinhead (Doug Bradley) begin to track Frank down.

What Works: Despite being two decades old, Hellraiser remains a solid film. The story is an interesting combination of Biblical stories, slasher films, urban legends, and fairy tales. The film balances these elements and disguises them so well that most will be invisible to the audience without careful analysis but they are there and these archetypes are used intelligently to create a horrific fairy tale in an urban setting. Hellraiser is best known as the film that introduced Pinhead to the world, but the film does not give itself over to the character the way some other franchises did, namely A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. In Hellraiser, the focus stays on the family drama as Julia becomes increasingly psychopathic and she and Frank threaten her husband (Andrew Robinson) and her stepdaughter (Ashley Laurence). Higgins gives a very strong performance as a woman who loses her way and the character of Julia is an unusually well written female role, both within the horror genre and across American cinema as a whole. That said, Pinhead is one of the great characters of horror cinema and that is to do with Barker’s writing, Bob Keen’s makeup, and Bradley’s commanding performance. Beyond Pinhead, the visual style of Hellraiser is unique and builds into the themes of sadomasochism and forbidden desire, achieving a balance between the gory and the gorgeous. This allows for the film to deliver unique visuals, some that have not been equaled in the genre since.

What Doesn’t: Some of the dialogue was dubbed over to Americanize the British accents of a few characters. Despite the staying power of this film, this has never been corrected. Also, some of the optical effects in the film have not dated very well. These are kept to a minimum but they do stick out.

DVD extras: The 20th anniversary edition of Hellraiser includes a commentary track, a documentary, interviews with actors Andrew Robinson, Ashley Laurence, and Doug Bradley, and composer Christopher Young, poster and still galleries, TV and radio spots, and the screenplay.

Bottom Line: Hellraiser is one of the great horror films to come out of the 1980s. The film is one of the rare demarcation points in the history of genre. Like Psycho, The Exorcist, and Scream, Hellraiser opened the genre to new possibilities and twenty years later its influence can still be seen in contemporary films like Saw.

Episode: #163 (October 28, 2007)