Hellraiser opens with a rather dirty and very 80s man purchasing a weird puzzle box in some Far Eastern bazaar. The location isn’t specified, and rather contributes to the aggressively sub-realistic tone of the film, especially when a minute later the man undergoes an arcane ritual surrounded by a circle of candles and opens the box, summoning forth a bunch of nasty interdimensional hooks that sink into his skin and drag him into an underworld where he’s ritualistically tortured by a group of grotesqueries in S&M-inspired body suits. And that’s just the first three minutes.
The man, we learn, is Frank (Sean Chapman), a pleasure-seeking hedonist who had a long-standing love affair with his brother Larry’s (Andrew Robinson) wife Julia (Claire Higgins). When Larry and Julia move back into the house where Frank died – they think he disappeared – they find it a run-down mess, and try to put it to rights. But Julia is still obsessed with Frank, and when a freak accident winds up summoning him back from whatever netherworld he’s dwelt in, she has no difficulty appeasing his bloodlust. Frank isn’t exactly the same – he’s a dripping skeleton, and he needs blood to make himself whole again. So Julia begins bringing men back to murder them and restore Frank to his former, smarmy glory. But the Cenobites – those nasty demons – want Frank back and will even make deals to get him, after Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) accidentally solves the puzzle box and opens up the same interdimensional portal.
Despite its grossness, Hellraiser is actually a pretty straightforward story, though it glosses over some of the heavier S&M qualities that writer/director Barker finds so fascinating in his novels. The film is a weird combination of sci-fi and horror, with interdimensional travel coinciding with necromancy and whatever the hell the puzzle box is supposed to be. But the film takes itself incredibly seriously in the midst of what’s a sort of silly story. Its very extremity means that it’s hard to be horrified by Hellraiser; there’s a giallo absurdism tinge to the violence that indicates either that Barker wasn’t a very experienced director, or had more of a sense of humor than his movie does. Or perhaps both.
The aesthetics of Hellraiser are certainly stuck in their time period, but also quite influential in their own way, and the special effects are truly spectacular (and gross). While there are times when Frank looks like he’s been slathered in undercooked ham, the look of the Cenobites – especially their leader Pinhead (Doug Bradley) – is beautifully grotesque. As are the series of murders that Julia commits to help out her decidedly juicy lover – one man gets his head stove in with a hammer, while Frank sucks the life out of several others.
Hellraiser means that I’ve now managed to watch at least the first of all the major horror franchises (no, I’m not counting Saw and you can’t make me). And it’s a solid piece of 80s entertainment, a bit of a departure in tone from the more tongue-in-cheek horror films being made in the late 80s and into the early 90s, with a very deliberate mythos underlying it. It can also be seen on Shudder, so now’s the time to experience it.