Clive Barker has evolved to connote master of horror not only on the page but on the screen. He’s crafted a number of recognizable villains, not the least of which is Pinhead. The unique villain, though not even the main character, developed into the face of the “Hellraiser” franchise. Barker’s 1987 film uses lovably gruesome special effects, memorable villains, and a neo-noir story to establish a strong first entry in what would be a long bloodline.
We open with adult Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) fiddling with an ominous puzzle box. Upon solving the puzzle, he’s stabbed with hooks and chains which rip him apart. A mysterious entity cleans up the room, and folds the puzzle box back into shape. Flashing forward to the present, Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) has returned to his boyhood home with wife Julia (Clare Higgins). Larry’s teenage daughter, Kristy (Ashley Laurence), doesn’t get along with her step-mother, and lives on her own.
Larry cuts himself and bleeds on the attic floor, which rejuvenates Frank’s remains. Julia, with whom Frank had an affair, finds him and agrees to help Frank recuperate. As evidenced by Larry’s accident, Frank needs blood, so Julia begins seducing and killing men for Frank’s benefit. Kristy discovers Julia bringing strange men back to the house, and suspects an affair. Eventually the puzzle box ends up in Kristy’s possession, and upon solving it she summons the cenobites, led by Pinhead (Doug Bradley). The Cenobites reside in a dimension of pure carnage, and relish in punishment. Wishing to return with Kristy, she instead convinces the Cenobites to take Frank back rather than her.
“Hellraiser” employs an enjoyable narrative, fusing supernatural and noir elements. There’s a theme of pleasure, in Julia’s affairs and the Cenobites’ sadomasochism. However the true legacy of “Hellraiser” derives from the special effects. Frank’s metamorphosis is graphic and visually captivating. The slow progression presents him developing through several stages, and feels more realistic than a quick transformation. The Cenobites are the real treat. Mostly unexplained in origin, they represent a horrific and unrelenting force. Their designs are thoughtful and creative: the rotund Butterball (Simon Bamford), a chilling Chattering Cenobite (Nicholas Vince), the diversifying Female Cenobite (Grace Kirby), and of course fan favorite Pinhead. Interestingly, he’s not even referred to as Pinhead, but his distinct cranium offered the now-common nickname. Bloodily delicious, “Hellraiser” is a hell of a good movie. It spurned a string of sequels, which though entertaining aren’t nearly as awesome as the delightful 1987 original.