Director: Clive Barker
Cast: Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Sean Chapman, Doug Bradley
Screenplay: Clive Barker
94 mins. Rated R.
Hey hey, apparently everyone is watching Hellraiser today. I wonder what the deal is.
When Larry Cotton (Andrew Robinson, Dirty Harry, Child’s Play 3) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins, Ready Player One, The Libertine) move into his childhood home, they unwittingly cause a chain reaction that leads to the resurrection of Larry’s dead brother Frank (Sean Chapman, A Mighty Heart, The Fourth Protocol). Frank died while trying to discover the reaches of pleasure and pain, and now he needs Julia’s help to return to his corporeal form, all the while avoiding the Cenobites, beings from an inter-dimensional hellscape looking for him.
Clive Barker (Nightbreed, Lord of Illusions) grew fed up with some of the films based on his work, so he elected to adapt a generally small work of his, The Hellbound Heart, with minimal sets and characters, to do justice to the material. He went to his local library, discovered that they had two book on directing, both currently checked out, and proceeded to show up to work wondering who was in charge. The fact that this movie turned out good at all is a miracle, but the fact that it turned out so nearly-perfect should give credit to Clive’s ability to trust in his team, in front of and behind the camera. Barker had a solid team of professionals to trust in and learn from, and I maintain that his ability to communicate his vision to those professionals and work alongside them is the reason this movie is the classic of the genre that it is to this day. It seems every time I view the film, I find more to love, and the nitpicks I have don’t even really bother me.
Excellent casting led to success in performance. Robinson and Higgins are both perfectly suited to Larry & Julia. There’s a sense that both of them have kept secrets from each other, and that they are seemingly fine with this arrangement, but the cracks in their marriage are showing, and it’s what drives Julia into the bloody arms of Frank.
Then, you have Ashley Laurence (Warlock III: The End of Innocence, Mikey), who seems to just fall into the narrative, representing the audience for a time. As she peels back the layers, we find our focus shifting from Larry to Kirsty, the daughter (in the book written as a friend of the couple). This shift works so well even as Kirsty’s scenes have a tendency to be the mythology and exposition scenes, giving us most of the character building for the dreaded Cenobites.
Doug Bradley is one of the nicest men I’ve met in the business, and yet he can deliver potentially silly dialogue with all the intensity of a stage performer because, well, he was. In addition to being a friend of Barker’s who had worked with him before, Bradley was able to work with the writer/director to find the perfect balance of over-the-top genre evil and a realistic layered character. Barker had described Pinhead (or the Lead Cenobite) as being a security guard for the prison that is Hell, while the escaped Frank is a convict who broke out, using the puzzle box (key) to get in and out. That simple direction seemed to give Bradley everything he needed to play between the lines to achieve Barker’s vision. It also didn’t hurt that the Cenobites known as Chatterer and Butterball were not able to perform their lines while caked in makeup and prosthetics, so those bits of dialogue were carried over to the Female and Pinhead, which may be another reason that Bradley’s character became so associated with the franchise (it was Barker’s plan to make Julia the BIG BAD villain of the franchise if more films were made). Fun Fact: Doug Bradley almost took the role of one of the moving men, seeing his first feature film role should be without a bunch of makeup.
The music, by Christopher Young, never seems to get brought up, yet his score and themes for the film offer up a warning: DREAD WAITS WITHIN, and yet, he brings a note of tragedy to the music as well, a care that many of our beloved characters will be ripped to shreds by film’s end.
Like I said, I have nitpicks, things like the hand-drawn animation or the lack of information surrounding the homeless man/demonic skeleton creature, but these are just things I wanted more of, and all good films make you want more.
Clive Barker’ directorial debut is a damn masterpiece, a film that gets even better with age and continues to find a fanbase, and perhaps the only reason it isn’t as well regarded as it should be could just be that some of the sequels soured the brand. Whatever the reason, the first Hellraiser movie is a near-perfect piece of filmmaking that should teach us all to trust in our peers when they’ve earned, and cramming right before the test might just work; it did for Director Clive Barker.
-Kyle A. Goethe