Clive Barker is one of the founding fathers of modern horror, helping to shape it through nearly every medium possible including books, movies, art, comics, and even video games. One of his short stories, “The Forbidden” was the foundation of one of my all time favourite horror movies Candyman, which starred one of the heroes of this blog: Mr. Tony Todd.
However he is best known for creating the Hellraiser franchise, which was also based off another story of his “The Hellbound Heart”. Despite featuring one of the all time iconic horror movie villains in the form of the terrifying looking Pinhead, this franchise has always kind of been the red-headed stepchild of the genre. It's the lowest grossing series out of any major horror franchise, but to be fair only four of the NINE movies in the series were released theatrically. Wait, nine movies? They've made nine of these things? Bloody hell, what have I gotten myself into?
Barker, after having two of his other books poorly mishandled into feature movies, took matters into his own hands and stepped into the director's chair. The film was given a paltry, Saw-like budget of one million dollars but made a pretty respectable $15 million dollars domestically. This is even more impressive considering it opened up against the box office juggernaut that was Fatal Attraction, which ended up being the second highest grossing movie in the United States as well as THE highest grossing movie worldwide in 1987.
On a quick tangent, isn't it amazing how much the world has changed the last three decades? That a tense psychological thriller could dominate theaters when nowadays you don't stand a chance unless your movie is nonstop CGI bullshit and explosions? Even more shocking, Fatal Attraction was rated R which is also the kiss of death for most movies in this era. But now I'm getting dangerously close to reviewing Fatal Attraction so let's get back on track. It's time to celebrate the first Halloween on A Ghoul Versus... in style with Clive Barker's Hellraiser!
A nice score from horror veteran Christopher Young plays as the credits roll until we open on another of the franchise's trademarks: the Lament Configuration, a mysterious locking puzzle box. A man named Frank Cotton is buying it from a shady looking dealer at a Moroccan marketplace, heading to a dark room to open it. Upon solving it hooks immediately appear and begin tearing into his flesh, and I'm getting Saw flashbacks already. I'm getting pretty tired of torture, I wonder if Care Bears is out on blu-ray yet?
We cut to later where the room is now filled with his bloody remains, as the face of the series Pinhead is introduced picking up the pieces of his face. Pinhead is played the famed Doug Bradley, an actor you might remember from my The Prophecy: Uprising review. He resets the box to it's original position, which also instantly cleans up the room. Wow, portal to hell, instant housekeeping... I REALLY need to get me one of these boxes.
Much later Frank's brother Larry moves into the house, along with his wife Julia. Larry is played by the FANTASTIC Andrew Robinson, whom is probably best remembered at the scene stealing Elim Garak from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Julia is played by Claire Higgins, who is mostly known for her work in live theater where she has built shelf after shelf of awards for her performances.
Larry is under the impression Frank is on the run from the law, wanting to move into the house to try to save his marriage as it seems rather strained. They begin moving in, Larry getting a visit from his daughter Kirsty who has opted not to live with him because she can't stand her stepmother Julia. Kirsty is played by newcomer Ashley Lawrence, who has gone on to make a career out of mostly horror movies.
While this is going on, we see Julia upstairs looking at a photograph of Frank. This begins a flashback where we learn she was having an affair with him as she obviously loved him WAY more than Larry. She even vows to do whatever it'll take for them to be together, which I'm sure won't come back to haunt her in any way, shape, or form.
Meanwhile downstairs Larry and the movers are moving a mattress into the house, Larry cutting his hand badly on an exposed nail on the staircase. As he is extremely squeamish at the sight of blood, he goes to find Julia to take care of it. He finds her up in the attic lost in a daydream about Frank, his blood dripping all over the floor. The blood is sucked up into the floorboards, where we get a brief glimpse of Frank's remains underneath. As everyone leaves to take Larry to the hospital for stitches, Frank's skinless body returns to life and rises out of the floor.
Later the night Larry holds a dinner party to celebrate the new home, Julia getting tired of his boorish friends and excusing herself. Hearing some strange noises coming from the attic, she goes upstairs to find good ol' Skinless Frank. He tells her how Frank's blood brought him back to life, asking her to get him more. Since Julia isn't exactly clear minded when it comes to Frank, she agrees.
The next day she heads to a bar and brings a man home with her, taking him to the attic where she proceeds to smash his head in with a hammer. DAYMN! She dived headfirst into this whole murder people thing, didn't she? She leaves the body for Frank while she washes up, returning to find her lover slightly more human looking. The show must go on!
But lest you think Julia has the headlock on crazy in this film, we go to Kirsty starting her new job at a pet store. She encounters a bearded hobo sticking his hand into a box full of grasshoppers and EATING THEM, but in his defense they probably are pretty high on protein. Just because you're a bum doesn't mean you can't stay healthy. This is the second time she's noticed the homeless man, having previously seen him watching her while she was on a date with her boyfriend Steve.
Julia brings home another snack for Frank, who finally explains to her how he got in this mess. He shows her the puzzle box, saying it opens the doors to the “pleasures of Heaven or Hell” courtesy of the Cenobites. A flashback shows the rest of the opening scene, as the leather clad creatures give him both pleasure and pain until he was finally torn apart. He doesn't bother to explain what the Cenobites are, nor does Julia bother to ask which is probably something I would have wondered about but hey... I guess when you're batshit crazy details don't matter.
Larry comes home unexpected to interrupt the story, Julia going downstairs to watch TV with him. Frank begins to freak out because he's getting very impatient being skinless, Larry hearing the noise and going upstairs to investigate despite Julia's protests. He finds the attic empty, taking Julia into their bedroom to have sex because that's enough of a good reason apparently. MMM, searching our skeevy attic really gets me hot! Frank walks out of the closet, a knife and a rat in his hand. Julia begins crying and yelling “No!” but Larry doesn't notice ANY of this. Frank then... cuts the rat in half and leaves? The fuck? Julia completely breaks down, Larry getting upset with her and leaving.
This is probably as good of a time as any to say this movie is TERRIBLE so far. The acting is atrocious, which I'm going to blame on Barker as he really had no idea how to get performances out of talented actors. It looks very cheap thanks to it's miniscule budget, but here it doesn't even feel like they were trying outside of making the Cenobites look badass. It's also very dull and edited poorly, so I am FIGHTING to stay interested at this point.
So Julia's cycle of picking up strangers continues, only one day Kirsty happens to see her bringing one home. She goes into the house to confront her stepmother over this perceived infidelity, only to walk right into Frank getting his eat on. He drags her into the Kill Attic, trying to calm her down by telling her he's good ol' Uncle Frank as he ominously advances on her. Surprisingly, this isn't effect as she begins to freak the fuck out in a bout of HORRIBLY bad acting.
She does manage to fight him off, grabbing the puzzle box to use as a weapon which immediately causes him to stop. He demands it back, so she throws it out the window and escapes while he screams. On her way out of the house she stops to grab the box and continues running away. She runs down the street in a haze, eventually passing out and waking up in the world's creepiest hospital. The doctor refuses to listen to her pleas for a phone to call her father, locking her in the room while he goes to get the police for some reason.
Unable to get out of the room, she begins to examine the box. Uh oh. She unlocks the box, which causes part of the wall in the room to crack open to reveal a long, dark hallway. Genius that she is, she walks right in as she hears a baby crying in the distance. We finally get some actual atmosphere as she cautiously walks down the hall, the tension off the charts. She runs into a fucked up scorpion looking monster, running back the other way as it chases her. Leaping back into her hospital room, she turns around to find the wall sealed. Well, it took a FREAKING HOUR but we finally had an awesome scene in this snoozefest.
As she fights to return the box back to its original configuration, the entire room begin going berserk on her including a sweet shot of an IV bag slowly filling with blood and exploding. A Cenobite appears in the room, which almost CERTAINLY had to be the inspiration for Nemesis from the Resident Evil video game series. Nemesis corners her and... shoves his fingers in his mouth as the rest of his crew materializes into the room, Pinhead among them.
Pinhead informs her since she solved the box she must come with them to taste their pleasures and pain. Kirsty is all “OH HELL NO!”, bringing up the fact that Uncle Frank is still alive and thus has managed to escape them. She offers to lead them to him in exchange for her freedom, Pinhead thinking this over and replying with a tepid “maybe”.
She races to Larry's house, elated to she her father is still alive only he's not. While she was out making new friends, Julia finally let Frank devour her husband and now he's wearing his skin. “Larry” tells Kirsty that he found “Frank” and killed him, Kirsty frantically yelling to see the body because her ass is now literally on the line. Julia takes Kirsty upstairs to see the skinned body, closing the door behind her and leaving.
The Cenobites appear, Pinhead demanding the man who skinned the corpse. Trying to protect the man she thinks is her father, Kirsty runs downstairs only to be stopped by Frank. She finally realizes who he is, Frank pulling out his knife and advancing on her. She moves out of the way at the last second, Julia getting stabbed instead. Shrugging, Frank follows Kirsty upstairs. For some reason she goes into one of the bedrooms instead of the attic, which is rather foolish because her new besties SO could have solved this problem in seconds.
She hides in a closet, one of the Cenobites appearing briefly to... vomit maggots all over her? Uh, thanks? She then leaves the closet to return to the landing, standing there and crying. What the fuck is going on right now? Frank, who was checking the other bedroom, appears and stalks her to the Kill Room where the Cenobites make their grand entrance. This is rather humourous for the “well, I'm boned” look on his face as they start appearing, along with their arsenal of chains and torture devices.
Hooks start tearing into his flesh again as he looks at a hysterical Kirsty and says “Jesus wept”. Sure, that makes sense. Kirsty hastily bids him adieu as he gets torn apart one more time, but one of the Cenobites stops her. Deal's off then? She runs to a bedroom where Julia's body is now lying on a bed, her face torn off and hooks sticking into her flesh. Why? This movie is incomprehensible. Kirsty notices the box is cradled in her hands, so she grabs it and turns it before Pinhead can stop her. This causes the Cenobites to explode in some of the shittiest special effects you'll EVER see outside of an old Atari game, with the added bonus of the house beginning to cave in.
She starts trying to escape when sudden Steve just happens to show up looking for her. Together they try to leave, opening the front door to find the scorpion monster waiting for them. MANY horribly edited shots later Kirsty uses the box to kill it and the happy couple walks outside. Steve sure is taking this monsters from Hell thing QUITE well, I might add. They watch as the house burns down, or rather WOULD HAVE if the movie had the budget to show that. Instead things just skip ahead to them standing amongst the remains of some burning furniture, Kirsty throwing the box into one of the burning piles.
Sadly we're not done yet, because here comes the bum from earlier ambling into the frame. He grabs the box, bursts into flames, and then turns into some kind of winged Hellbeast. He flies away as the film transitions back to the Moroccan cafe this piece of shit begun in. The box is once again lying on the table, the dealer selling it to a new man.
Cue the credits.
Huh. I had much fonder movies of this film back when I saw it was a youngster. I hate saying it, but this film is almost complete rubbish. The first hour is SO DULL I can barely remember anything besides being bored. There is nothing going on to keep you vested in any of this, especially since Kirsty (ostensibly the hero of the story) is barely in the damn thing!
Once she discovers the truth about Frank it gets briefly good with the hospital sequence, but then nose dives for good. Nothing makes any sense, and I do mean nothing. I assume a lot of my confusion is expounded on in the book, but the movie does fuck all even ATTEMPTING to explain anything. It's almost hilarious how the most basic fundamentals of storytelling are ignored here in favour of... well, nothing really.
What are the Cenobites? Where did they come from? What is the Lament Configuration? How did it get to Earth? How did Frank know about it? Is the Moroccan dealer working with the Cenobites? What do they get out of torturing people? What do they do when the portal isn't opened? Why did Larry's blood bring Frank back to life? Why did they leave Frank's body in the house if later the movie said he “escaped” from them? I mean they freaking killed him after torturing the shit out of him, hasn't he already paid his price? What was the deal with the bum? Why was he stalking Kirsty when he had no reason to since the Cenobites had no idea Frank was resurrected?
That is pretty much the entirety of the story right there. Now I can usually give a horror movie a pass if at least the visuals are interesting, but outside of the Cenobite designs and the hospital sequence, this was embarrassingly bad. I know the budget was painfully low, but so were some of the other cult classics released the same year (Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II, Prince Of Darkness, and a little film called Evil Dead II) and they all look like Prometheus compared to this thing.
Just a disastrous start for a franchise, but you can chalk a lot of that up to Barker's inexperience as a film maker. Every film is someone's first film, and they can't all be home runs. He would get better and hone his craft over the decade, turning out the totally-batshit-crazy-but-in-a-good-way Nightbreed in 1990, and the vastly underrated Lord Of Illusions in 1995. He was effectively done with the series after this, he would help produce the sequel and write the story but that was it. He is currently hard at work on a remake of this very movie, not only writing it but was also instrumental in ensuring Bradley would return to play Pinhead.
This is actually a remake I can get behind, as the premise for this movie was excellent but was carried out about as poorly as possible. THIS is the kind of movie begging for a take two, and not something that was already perfect like Robocop or Total Recall. But before we get to that, there's still a sequel to get to which actually features most of the cast from this movie returning. How does it all go down? Find out here!