Thursday, October 4, 2012

Hellraiser Movie Review

All this time I thought I'd never seen this movie. The series and the Pinhead character were iconic when I was growing up. The fact that Hellraiser in general was just part of any decent conversation about horror films meant I had to include it. Then it turned out most of the movie was familiar. I'm sure now I must have watched it on late night cable as a teenager.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

I must have done a lot more late-night cable viewing as a teenager than I thought because it turns out, despite my apparently unreliable memory, that I’d seen Hellraiser before. Or I’d seen most of it anyway. I understand why I blocked all conscious traces of it from my mind. I had to spare myself the embarrassment of acknowledging that I’d spent time on this sloppy excuse for a thriller. There’s no denying it now, I suppose.

The story is from Clive Barker, who also wrote and directed the film. Barker is known for his atmospheric prose style in the thriller genre, but he directs his own material with all the skill of an amateur hand. He’s turned a creepy horror story into a cheap, harlequin romance and directed it with the soft lighting reminiscent of straight-to-video soft-core films. To get the story from A to B and convince the audience that an ordinary woman would murder strangers, all Barker needs is a sex scene that is supposed to be so exquisite that it gives her shivers just recalling it.

The woman is Julia (Clare Higgins) and the lothario is her husband’s brother Frank (Sean Chapman). Her husband, played by the Andrew Robinson, is bookish and unassuming, but his brother is supposed to be sexy and dangerous to the point of irresistibility. Their one night stand has to be so powerful that when she finds him in the attic, all pus, bones and guts without even legs to stand on, she agrees to supply him with blood to complete his rebirth from tortured zombie creature to steamy sex machine. He is attempting to return from another dimension, not quite hell, but something like it, where he has been tortured by creatures known as cenobites. The torture, not depicted too explicitly, involves lots of chains and small hooks and quite a bit of bloodletting.

The most interesting thing Hellraiser has going for it, apart from the fact that it admirably doesn’t go for the typical slasher plotline of every 1980s horror film, is the special effects work. The four cenobites are originals indeed. Of course, the head one has since become iconic and known as Pinhead, but the other three are wonderful products of design, innovation and makeup execution. Also the process of Frank changing from a small bud of blood and pus to a crawling nightmare of a man is all done with stop motion creature effects that look phenomenal even these 25 years later. I imagine this movie being made today with computer images that reveal the metamorphosis in all its gory detail leaving little to the imagination, and without any texture or sense of presence in real physical space that latex, makeup, and models have. The effects have the look and feel of vintage Cronenberg.

Hellraiser is a nice throwback to the kind of creature thrillers that defined the horror genre in the 30s and 40s, but the characterization is so poor that most of the movie doesn’t make sense. The plot developments depend on decisions made by characters that I have a hard time accepting. It’s as if Barker had to omuch faith in the strength of his original story to actually flesh it out any further.

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