Hellraiser (1987): A Dealer of Gruesome Pleasures and Bizarre Myths


If you tear a person apart, can you find their soul or just their inner organs? This is a question posed by Clive Barker’s original “Hellraiser,” which wasn’t a critic’s darling.

Though the original Hellraiser inspired many sequels, most of those don’t quite match the atmospheric original. It may be the power of its introduction, which offers no subtlety. In little time at all, you see a body being eviscerated, and the theme of pain mixed with pleasure becomes obvious instantly. It’s sort of cheap and tawdry, like pornography. It’s a guilty pleasure. That is part of its appeal.

When it comes down to it, this is what most critics couldn’t — and likely still can’t — handle. It is not a normal movie for normal people. Its themes are initially simple, unrefined, becoming only as complex as the viewer his or her self allows. It can be a very simple movie, or very complex. I’m tempted to say its shortcomings pretty much don’t matter, as the movie is a statement that almost stands alone. If it is a generic horror movie, it’s because the viewer couldn’t assign it any other role. Perhaps that could be said of any movie, but for Hellraiser this seems quite accurate.

The Puzzle Box: Tender Sanctity of Love vs. Ferocious Sins of the Flesh

The puzzle box, which has come to be known as the “Lament Configuration.” (Hellraiser)

Hellraiser seems to suggest that, although normal, conventional love and marriage have obvious power, they can easily be overcome by darker urges. The puzzle box, then, likely represents the puzzle that is human sexuality, which always has its place in darkness. Quite simply, if we try to solve the puzzle — to understand our animal urges and our nature — it may be like staring into an abyss.

No matter how profound we think love and sexuality is, it can all be reduced to physical parts, like dissecting a frog or an earthworm. We are living things with organs for a while, and we eventually become dead things — and putrefaction sets in, then we rot. A set of functions. How bleak!

In a way, this part of the story almost outshines its sillier aspects (blood spilling on the attic floor to animate a corpse, for example). At the same time, this movie proposes its own Hellish mythology, undeniably tying love, pain, torture, death and demons together. And why not? The major religions all have their own quirky stories. Why should a horror movie be any different? Hellraiser proposes certain inroads to returning to life, regaining a physical form in conventional reality. Of course, that path is paved with additional bloodshed. It’s a hell of a movie, and most critics didn’t wish to explore these aspects of it. It all just flew over their heads, like so much flying human detritus.

Frank and Julia

Frank and Julia. (Hellraiser)

It’s apparent that Frank (Sean Chapman) and Julia (Clare Higgins) represent dark, forbidden relationships and lust. However, their attraction is so strong that it almost becomes love — almost. It seems they can only be together if they are damned, and if things are wrong with the world, and with them. So, in a way, their relationship is one of the most interesting aspects of the film.

To emphasize this point, Frank is revitalized a bit more every time she brings a man home to the attic. There she kills them and lets Frank feast on their flesh. The power of attraction and trickery blend together with death, consumption and rejuvenation. It’s a bit silly, but I makes me think of the infamous Venus Flytrap. Julia, then, is like the sweet nectar utilized to attract bachelors (who are like mere insects).

Actually, it’s a bit similar to The Little Shop of Horrors, the silly story about a flower shop employee feeding people to his plant. In fact, every incarnation of that story even has S&M elements. In the first film, Jack Nicholson appears as a masochist visiting the dentist, deriving great pleasure from the sadistic dentist’s drill.

The Cenobites, Kirsty Cotton and Bargains of a Lifetime

Cenobite posse, in effect!


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What would Hellraiser be without its Cenobites? Obviously you have Doug Bradley as “Pinhead,” Nicholas Vince as “The Chatterer,” Simon Bamford as “Butterball” and Grace Kirby as “Female Cenobite.” In Clive Barker’s mythos (and as Wikipedia adequately describes them), the Cenobites are “a group of extradimensional beings who experiment in forms of extreme sadomasochism as part of a religious devotion to hedonism.” Whew!

The Cenobites get involved with Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) in her quest to defeat Frank and Julia — who also killed Kirsty’s father, Larry (Andrew Robinson). While not the foremost stars of the original Hellraiser, the cenobites nevertheless have a commanding presence, with their presence being mandatory in every other series installment.

What I like most about them is their mysterious nature. They seem to feel a sense of duty, of obligation in their pursuits. The blending of pain and pleasure is indeed something sacred to them. I also like how Pinhead is willing to bargain with someone. That makes him unique among horror villains of his caliber. Of course, he’s always bargaining with other people’s lives, but what greater stakes are there in the world of sheer self-indulgence that is Hell?

Next: Hellraiser: Judgment will tear your soul apart

What are your thoughts? Does Hellraiser tear your soul apart in a wonderful way, or do you derive no pleasure from its hellish vision? Let us know in the comment section below.