Year 1987


Andrew Robinson  as  Larry Cotton
Clare Higgins as Julia Cotton
Ashley Laurence as Kirsty Cotton
Sean Chapman as Frank Cotton
Doug Bradley as Lead Cenobite (Pinhead)  
Director - Clive Barker
Screenwriter - Clive Barker

Hellraiser is one of those movies that should have failed but didn't. In fact, portions of the movie are marvelously, frighteningly imaginative.  

This would have been a terrible movie except for the redeeming acting of Doug Bradley as Pinhead, who is the guy in the picture above, and some truly original touches of gore. Plus, and most importantly, there's an element that is archetypal and hits you at a deep, subconscious core that you weren't aware of.

I use the word "archetype" in the Jungian sense as in a symbol that all people are aware of subconsciously. The respresentation of the symbol can vary by society or culture, but every human has a way of representing the archetype of a father, mother, wise man, and evil trickster. Pinhead and his peers are representative of an archetype that Clive Barker has christened a "Cenobite". It's the only way to explain how you know them and what they are without ever having seen them before.

First, let me set up the characters. There's Larry (Andrew Robinson) who is the father and widower, Julia (Clare Higgins) who is Larry's second wife, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) who is the daughter who doesn't live with them, and Frank (Sean Chapman) who is Larry's brother but also has a tie to Julia. Frank is the one that the whole story revolves around. He opens a demonic puzzle box and pays the price. Frank is also an excellent name for a psychotic individual. Don't believe me? Check out Blue Velvet and King of New York.

Andrew Robinson played the nutjob in Dirty Harry and the sidekick in Charley Varrick. He may have been good in those movies where his role was smaller, but in this movie where he's one of the leads, he's unconvincing as a father, husband, brother, someone with an opinion, or someone that has a non-government paying job. Clare Higgins fares better at times but lacks nuance when she's being condescending. Also, the character she plays has a type of sexual presence that makes you ask, "How'd she hook up with the Andrew Robinson character in the first place?" Ashley Laurence can't act frightened, happy, concerned, or interesting. Maybe it's the director's fault since she was new to acting and he was relatively new to directing, so he didn't provide advice in terms that she could understand. She has a pretty decent scream, though. As for Sean Chapman and Doug Bradley, I'll get to them later.

Most of action takes place in a house that's been in the family for years but that Larry is just moving into.

You see, Frank did something bad. He pursued things that he shouldn't have, or maybe he should have but he doesn't like the reward, or something. Anyway, ever since the days of silent films, mad scientists have been doing that sort-of-thing. Now, in our more enlightened society with laws preventing scientists, mad or otherwise, from doing that sort-of-thing, it's the hedonists that do it. Check out From Beyond which was released a year earlier for another take on the same premise.

Anyway, Frank doesn't like what happened to him and wants to reverse the whole thing, or at least pretend it never happened. Julia decides to help him. This reversal process involves buckets of blood and gore.

So far so good. But what about the abilities of the actors and actresses? What about the creepy, fear inducing dialog?

Let's talk about the dialog first. The dialog is horrible. A typical exchange is of the form, "You don't mean that," followed by, "Maybe I do." That brilliant exchange took place the first time Julia brought a man home. But the movie is littered with uninspired snippets like that. As another example, when Kirsty meets the inevitable guy who likes her, he walks her to a train station and the dialog is literally "Yes, you are," followed by "No, I'm not." at least three times in a row. I expected Peewee Herman to pop up and demand, "I know you are. But what am I?"

You can also expect character reaction to be unbelievable in most instances. Larry receives a phone call hours after his daughter left him for the night, in the company of a young man she'd just met. Frank, asleep in bed, drowsily saunters down to the kitchen to answer the ringing. Basic rule in life: A telephone call past 10 P.M. is usually bad news. Everyone knows this and you brace yourself for it. You panic because of it. You steel yourself to hear about a death, accident, or arrest. You don't saunter around.

How much can you do in one day? Can you fully move in to a house, prepare a dinner for eight, go the hospital for stitches, and eat said dinner in a leisurely manner at eight? No problem in this movie. And who are the dinner guests and where did they come from? Are they new neighbors? Old friends from the old neighborhood who loved you so much that they traveled fifty or so miles to see you? No idea. I got the feeling that these people were plopped into the movie to stretch it out and allow the boy-meets-girl scene to occur.

And what a charmer this seducer is! To get Kirsty all hot and sweaty, at the dinner table he shows her how he can take a lit cigarette, and using only his tongue, put the cigarette in his mouth, close his lips with the cigarette in his mouth, and then reverse the trick. I guess women go crazy for that sort of thing. Imagine how much more he'd have impressed her if there'd be a live chicken around that he could bite the head off of.

I knew a guy who tried to do this cigarette trick. He had blisters in his mouth for days after he'd failed. I knew a guy who really could do it, though. It was all the rage back in the 70s!

Back to the movie. Was there a sale on maggots? They're all over the place. In the kitchen, in the attic, (probably) at the pet store along with the grasshoppers. The worst part is that they don't belong there. Maggots don't stay maggots for weeks at a time, like the scene in the kitchen. Maggots can't feed on a dessicated corpse, like they were doing in the attic, because there's nothing for them to eat. The flagrant use of maggots was for effect and this use of things for shock value is a two edged sword. When it works, it's great. When it's too over the top and makes no sense, it detracts and takes you out of the movie.

Scenes that didn't work include one of a torn hand that goes on forever. The actual damage when Larry cuts his hand on a nail is wonderfully excruciating in its development. But then he proceeds to drip blood up the stairs, into the attic, and on the attic floor. I mean all over. As Larry traipses blood through the house, there's frequently a shot of a drop of red hitting the floor. It's always the same image of a new drop hitting a growing pool of red ichor. Larry can go someplace where he's never been to bleed, but the next drop that falls is shown hitting the collecting pool rather than a clean surface. It's distracting, but not condemning.

All told, Larry loses about a pint of blood. This seems excessive. But the best part is that his blood feeds a creature's heart that has been collecting dust somewhere between the house's second story and the attic. No maggots there though. Larry's relatively small amount of lost blood allows this creature to produce buckets of slime, five quarts of blood, bones, and some muscle tissue. Talk about stretching your purchasing dollop!

In another scene, Kirsty is locked in a hospital room. No wait, there's an interdimensional portal. Nope, bad idea. Close up that hole. She's locked in a hospital room. No, wait, here come the Cenobites. They don't care about where she is, they want her to go with them. Kristy shooes them away, but they tell her that they want Frank and he has to admit that he's Frank before they'll accept the evidence. Maybe the Cenobites follow English Common Law or Supreme Court decisions regarding presumption of guilt. Who knew? Anyway, Kirsty is still locked in a hospital room and the Cenobites have pretty much told her that she's on her own. Then...poof! She's not in the hospital room! What happened? Who knows?

One of my "favorite" scenes occurs at the end of the movie when Kirsty wants to destroy the box. There's an open field somewhere near a large city where pieces of furniture are placed and set on fire. They don't burn, although they remain ablaze. There's a single chair here, about fifteen feet away there's mound of broken masonry that has flames rising from it, and about ten feet from that there's something else on fire. Where is this place? It's not the house because the house was in the suburbs and this is somewhere downtown.

Coincidences are too common. Larry tells his daughter to drop in on his wife and get to know her. Julia's not been getting out that he knows of and maybe Kirsty can pop over and then Larry's two favorite women in the whole wide world can bond. The day that Kirsty chooses to do this is the day that everything goes wrong. If she'd come the day after, there'd have been no problem. Earlier in the day or later in the day? Again, no problem. But that day at that time? Problem. Big problem. She catches Uncle Frank in the middle of something. And Frank, who could've completed what he was in the middle of without attacking Kirsty, decides to drop his current secret "meal" and come out of the, uh, attic.

As a result of the encounter, Kirsty, in Ashley Laurence's best acting of the movie, wanders the streets of some city in shock.

Enough about the bad stuff. What could offset the bad stuff? Not much during the first half of the movie. With the bad acting, contrived scenes, and second rate special effect there's not much to hold your attention. In fact, the first time I saw this movie, I found it too idiotic to watch and turned it off.

But there are scenes that stay with you. Larry's torn hand? There's a nail sticking out of a piece of wood. You know that he's going to catch his flesh on that. Clive Barker knows that you know and he wants you to know that he knows. So, he drags the scene out. It's wonderfully protracted. It's a clever, memorable device.

Then there's Julia's first murder. You feel her indecision. You wonder what's she feeling. You understand that she's going to take a life and once she does, there's no going back. It's a great scene that's perfectly directed. Fortunately, there's no dialog to ruin the moment.

Sean Chapman does a good job acting as the evil Frank. He's effectively imperious and convincing as the master in a master/slave relationship.

But the best is Doug Bradley as the lead Cenobite, or Pinhead as he's most often referred to. His screen time is limited, which adds to his importance and mystique. When he speaks, his lines are delivered so that they are revelatory gems. When he's not being laconic, his words come out as sagatious.

Pinhead: The box. You opened it. We came.

Pinhead: No tears, please. It's a waste of good suffering.

Pinhead: We'll tear your soul apart!

Pinhead: This isn't for your eyes.

In an almost ecstatic voice...
Pinhead: We have such sights to show you!

In general, bad acting, worse dialog, too many coincidences, and a plethora of jumbled scenes are overcome by moments of good acting, quotable dialog, logical progression of events, and memorable scenes tied together with threads of subconscious, primal feelings and fears.

Lots of blasphemy, brief nudity, and dark desires probably take this off the list of movies you want to see on a first date. But then, maybe she's twisted.

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