In the mid-eighties, British Novelist Clive Barker had become dismayed at how his work had been adapted to screen. He felt it was God’s way of telling him he should direct, “how much worse could I be?” he mused. Knowing he would have a tight budget, he looked to adapt his novella, The Hellbound Heart, which he figured he could film for less than a million dollars. New World, founded by Roger Corman, agreed to fund the project for $900,000. His producer, Christopher Figg, also insisted on changing the name to Hellraiser. Filmed within three months, this low budget independent British horror movie would forge a legacy and create a recognisable icon. It all started at 55 Ludovico Place…
Larry (Andrew Robinson) and Julia Cotton (Clare Higgins) have moved into a new house, Larry’s goal to repair any damage to their relationship. His brother Frank (Sean Chapman) had previously lived there and left the place in a terrible state. Unbeknownst to the couple, Frank was brutally ripped to pieces after opening a strange puzzle box in the house’s attic. After blood is accidentally spilled, what’s left of Frank begins to take form, morphing into a bloody husk that barely resembles a man (played now by Oliver Smith). He convinces Julia to kill for him so he can feast and become whole again. As Frank becomes stronger, his niece Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) discovers his existence and Hell promises its revenge.
The sheer form of Frank is grotesque. His skinless body is frightening yet difficult to prise your eyes from. Barker doesn’t hold back on the gore however Hellraiser is not gratuitous in its presentation. This is somewhat ironic considering the themes of relentless pleasure but Barker isn’t wanting to disgust his audience, he wants to captivate them. To dig his hooks in and make them squirm.
For a first time director, Barker does an incredible job of crafting a tense atmosphere. While very much a body horror, Hellraiser is in many ways a haunted house movie. Instead of a ghost the otherworldly creature is very much alive and for all intents and purposes, human.
Higgins is close to stealing the show as Julia. She is devilish and seductive, a monster in her own right. Her lust captures the tone of the movie and mirrors the essence of the story. Early on she makes a choice, one that proves costly for many involved. Laurence is great as Kirsty, showing shades of the final girl, she’s an unexpected adversary of Hell. Her strength and passion shine through as battles otherworldly forces while maintaining rationality in her actions.
In a film with many good performances, it’s Doug Bradley that is the breakout star. Cast only as the Lead Cenobite, this movie monster would become instantly recognisable in pop culture as Pinhead. He carries himself with a sinful grace, delivering each line with a dynamic vigour that commands your attention. It’s a role that would define Bradley’s career and one that would not have happened had he played the removals man, a forgettable role he was also offered and contemplated taking as it meant his face would be seen.
As the movie builds to a frightening and blood drenched climax, Barker introduces fantastical elements of his world with ease, the film never threatening to become camp or silly. It remains a terrifying spectacle as Frank’s past catches up with him and worlds begin to collide.
Hellraiser is a movie that has aged incredibly well (for the most part) and remains one of the best British horrors of all time. Christopher Young’s gothic score beautifully compliments what’s on screen and although not as recognisable as other horror themes, its startling strings will make your skin crawl long after the credits have rolled.
An outstanding achievement by all involved, Hellraiser was a fresh entry to a genre that was growing stale. It provided more than one movie monster, each one with their own personality and grace that made them as alluring as they were repulsive. Intelligent, cruel and enchanting, it has endured for thirty years earning its status as a true classic of British horror. It will still tear your soul apart.