Hellraiser

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Released: 1987
Director: Clive Barker

There are a handful of iconic characters in horror. These are the characters that come to mind when the genre is mentioned, ones that helped define what the genre is, and what the genre can be. Many of these are characters that defined the slasher genre in particular – Freddy Kreuger, Michael Myers, and Jason being the prime examples. However, despite how great many of these characters are in their respective films, my favorite has always been Pinhead from the Hellraiser series.

Hellraiser is a movie that pushed a lot of boundaries in its day, and continues to have a fond place in many horror fans’ hearts. But the question, as with any classic horror film, remains: does it stand up to the test of time?

The film focuses on Julia and Larry, a married couple who are moving in to Larry’s old childhood home. Larry’s daughter, Kirsty, has a chilly relationship with her step-mother, and chooses to find her own place to live rather than move in with them. While settling into the house, an accident that spills blood manages to bring about the resurrection of Frank, Larry’s brother, and reveals the nature of his disappearance years ago. Frank begs Julia to help him become whole again, and escape the mysterious cenobites, which sends them all careening down a path of pain and destruction.

Hellraiser is essentially a fairy tale. A dark and twisted one with strong sexual overtones, sure, but a fairy tale nonetheless. This similarity is even remarked on in the sequel film. The set up is quite simple and similar in its structure: the evil stepmother facing off against the young, beautiful hero of the story, who must learn how to learn to stand on her own two feet and face the terrifying reality of her world.

There are two major female characters in this film, the first one we are introduced to being Julia. She is a woman who is seduced by evil, and uses sexuality and violence as a method of gaining power and control. I think there is a problematic element to her character, in which her primary motivation is driven by her attraction to Frank, and her desire to be with him again. It is at Frank’s urging that she begins to kill men to bring him back to his human form, so it feels like her choices are manipulated. However, I do appreciate the fact that we get to see her make the decision to kill actively. When she brings the first man she intends to murder home, you see her falter when the time comes, uncertain in her plan. The man, misinterpreting this as an uncertainty about having sex, responds with anger and aggression. This attempt to frighten and overwhelm her spurs the decision to murder him and give him to Frank, and we are able to witness that. This is a situation that is turned around by her choice, and she is able to assert her power.

While Julia takes on the archetype of the evil step-mother, Kirsty equally takes on the role of the pure young maiden. Kirsty is seen as loving and compassionate, especially in her relationship with her father. The purity that is stressed in Kirsty is not the same virginal quality that you often see in other horror films; Kirsty becomes involved with a partner during the course of the film after some sexually charged flirting, and they’re seen spending the night together. Her sexuality is not a detriment from her purity – it is, rather, the purity of spirit that she brings which is meant to see as valuable. She uses her intelligence to get herself out of the problem that violence got her into – she is able to reason with the cenobites and barter a deal with them, as well as her following instinct to use the puzzle box to send them back to their dimension.

For a film that is so deeply sexual in nature, it’s interesting to see the approach the film takes on sex in respect to each of its characters. It’s about deviance in sexuality, but it doesn’t necessarily position sexuality as deviance. The characters who are the most vile in their behavior are seen as so for the way they behave regarding sexuality, not the act itself; for Julia, her infidelity is the first clue to her moral standing, followed later by her willingness to murder for her lover. Frank is the most obvious example given. He is the one who seeks out the puzzle box, and sets all of the events into motion, but it isn’t even his involvement with the cenobites that denotes him as an evil character. His part in Julia’s infidelity and his willingness to murder other men in order to rejuvenate his body indicate a selfish nature. However, his relationship with his niece Kirsty is the most telling aspect of this character, with strong implications of molestation and incest given throughout the film, repeatedly showing that he derives pleasure from hurting and terrorizing her.

A strong connection is drawn between sex and violence in this film, one that is deliberately off-putting rather than tantalizing. Some films show violence through a sexual lens as a way of making the violence seem more appealing.  Hellraiser goes the opposite route, viewing sexuality through a violent lens, rendering both acts repulsive.  Adding violence to sex does not make it inherently more exciting – though it seems to in the flashbacks between Julia and Frank. When unchecked, it crosses the line into the grotesque, which is what Frank and Julia eventually become. The cenobites themselves are what lies beyond the threshold of that line, pain and pleasure blending in their minds to a point where there is no discernible difference between the two.

Thirty years later, and this film is still genuinely creepy. It has a creative concept, with fantastic designs for its monsters. And more than that, it accomplishes what many great horror films aim to do – it explores the evil that exists within humanity and the world we know, while creating a parallel to something supernatural. The cenobites, while being the iconic image of this film, have only a small amount of screen time. They are there to accent the horror that is already happening, not to be the Big Bad of the film.

As a film from 1987, the effects of this still stand up quite well. I’ve always been more of a fan of well done practical effects over CGI most of the time, and this is one of my favorite examples of how well this can work. Frank’s reanimated corpse is so much more terrifying with the physical effects present, the slimy viscera dripping off of his skinless body. There are effects that are less convincing, like the latex face that is used in the beginning of the film, but they are all a far cry from the terrible attempt at graphic effects at the end. You know what scene I’m referring to.

Everyone has a few favorite films that they can go back to and rewatch innumerable times.  No matter what mood they’re in, they always seem to be the right choice.  As far as horror movies go, Hellraiser is one of these films for me.

Rating: 4 out of 5. Not without a few problems, but a favorite of mine and essential to the genre.

Violence level: This is an incredibly violent film, with murder, torture, and sex all linked together inextricably. There is a decent amount of rape imagery and implications peppered throughout the film. Be warned.

Scariness level: If a single one of the cenobites doesn’t give you the chills, I guarantee Frank’s delivery of “come to daddy” will. SHIVER.  And not the good kind, Pinhead.

Bechdel Test: Maybe? Kirsty and Julia do speak to each other, but it usually involves Kirsty’s father in some way.

Mako Mori test: I’m torn on this one.  Kirsty initially is involved in order to help save her father, but ultimately works towards saving herself.  I’m still not giving it a total pass.

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Posted on November 19, 2015, in Films and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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