The story begins at a Moroccan souk where Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) is haggling with a local trader to buy a mysterious puzzle box. Frank’s fingernails are dirty and he’s dressed in khakis and a vest, suggesting he’s deserted from the army and made his way to Morocco for a Joe Orton style getaway. The camera then cuts to Frank in a dimly lit attic, practically empty apart from the candles placed around him in a square. Frank solves the puzzle box and suddenly he is ripped apart, limb by limb with chains. A dark figure emerges, picks up the puzzle box and suddenly everything disappears and the blood-soaked room returns to its former state (minus Frank). It is later revealed the dark figure is a Cenobite from another dimension. Having exhausted all forms of sexual pleasure, Frank had bought the box with the hope it would unlock new forms of sensory experience. Once the Cenobites have their hooks in him he soon begins to regret this decision. After this gruelling opening, things slow down a little as the audience is introduced to Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson), and his English wife Julia (Clare Higgins). They are moving into the house where Frank met his grisly fate although they have no idea what happened to him. Larry is hoping to rebuild his marriage to the cold-hearted Julia who, it turns out, once had an affair with Frank and still pines for him. When Larry is hauling a mattress upstairs, he cuts his hand badly on a nail, causing a deep gash and the blood drips on the attic floor. While Julia takes Larry to the hospital for stitches, the blood on the floor slowly reforms the skeleton of Frank (now played by the very skinny actor Oliver Smith). When Julia later sees the deformed Frank she is shocked, but the old monster has lost none of his charm and, still smitten, Julia agrees with Frank’s idea to lure men to the attic with the promise of casual sex. Once there, the men are bludgeoned to death with a hammer and Frank feeds on their blood which helps his body slowly regenerate. Larry is oblivious to all of the sex and murder happening in his own house, but his beautiful daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) from a previous marriage has her suspicions about her stepmother.
The genius of the film is that it takes old monster in the attic cliches and revitalises them (literally you might say) into what became one of the most seminal works in the Body Horror genre. The Cenobites torture methods are based on the most extreme forms of sadomasochism. Barker culled much of the Cenobites design from S&M magazines given to him by Coil, an experimental music group who he wanted to compose the film’s score. Coil were replaced by the experienced film composer Christopher Young who does a great job creating atmosphere out of rattling chains and music box tunes, but in interviews, Coil came off as angry with how they were sidelined. Coil’s front-men John Balance and Peter Christopherson claimed ‘we saw some original footage which we unfortunately didn’t keep but it was really heavy and good, like a sort of twisted English horror film. And then when the Americans saw this footage they thought it was too extreme […] and took out a lot of the explicit sex.’ It is hard to believe how a film more extreme than this would have ever been as successful. In a pre-CGI age this is an inventively gory film, dripping in blood and not for the fainthearted. That said, it’s full of mystery, suspense and a tight, disciplined sense of narrative. Don’t let the talk of S&M put you off. In its quieter moments, Hellraiser has great sexual chemistry. The flashback scenes to Frank and Julia’s affair are very hot, and at an otherwise boring dinner party, Kirsty and her love interest share a look which is loaded with sensual desire. Barker’s direction is solid and the cast is uniformly excellent. Andy Robinson (better known as Scorpio in Dirty Harry) is wonderful as the hapless Larry and (spoiler alert) clearly enjoys the opportunity to play a dual role for the finale. Claire Higgins is icily attractive as Julia, and in her film debut Ashley Laurence is a gorgeous and sympathetic heroine– such a shame she got typecast as a scream queen. But it’s Sean Chapman and Oliver Smith who steal the acting honours playing Frank before and after the Cenobites get their hands on him. In the screening I attended there were quite a lot of women in the audience, and it was interesting to see their delighted reaction to Frank, both in his handsome, natural state and as the protean, fleshy monster. Some of the women in the auditorium were practically cheering him on every time he campily exclaimed “Come to Daddy”, which is remarkable given he is the chief villain of the piece. Julia is evil through a misguided sense of love, the Cenobites are merely following their own rules, but Frank is a purely self-absorbed libertine. But if love is worth dying for, then Frank learns that sex is worth going to hell for.
Clive Barker is a Liverpudlian by birth and I’m surprised that, in a city which has never been afraid to show off its homegrown celebrities, more is not made of his work here. Certainly Hellraiser and the Books of Blood series made Barker a star back in the 1980s. Go on YouTube for evidence, he seems to have been almost constantly on television back then. He moved to Los Angeles, directed two more films but, ironically, in Hollywood I don’t think he ever quite recaptured that level of stardom, but how many novelists are interviewed by such big-name presenters like Bill Maher and David Letterman? I remember as a child seeing an exhibition of Barker’s artwork in Chester. I was struck by the vivid storytelling in his paintings, and I’ve taken an interest in his work ever since. I’ve never been a huge fan of Horror; it’s fair to say my tastes gravitate more naturally to thrillers, noir and historical crime fiction, but Hellraiser has always intrigued and fascinated me. Rather like Frank’s ill-fated possession of the puzzle box, I’ve just always been drawn to this movie. As for the sequels the less said the better. The first two were passable to good but after that it became a dreary, repetitive straight-to-video franchise. There’s talk of a reboot, but honestly you’d be better served just by revisiting the original. Hellraiser is not without its flaws. The actors were awkwardly dubbed in post-production to suggest an American setting, and the finale (save for one character’s spectacular demise) is a little lame, but it still packs a punch thirty years after its original release. It’s too well-made a movie to be described as a guilty pleasure, but guilt and pleasure are definitely on the menu.