This film really feels like it came out earlier than it did. For some reason my brain kept thinking this came out in the early 80’s rather than the late 80’s. Granted some of the fashion in the film does actually date it fairly well. I recently had an opportunity read some interview transcripts regarding the making of this film, courtesy of io9. This makes the film yet another one of the classic great films shot on a low budget (less than $1mm) and considered an indie film. I think that is worthy of some commentary.
Some of the greatest horror movies come from what is not seen vs. what is seen. My best friend, generally dislikes horror, but much of it comes from having a face you can see. It stops being as scary. To quote an underrated movie, “If he has a voice he has a throat, if he has a throat, he has a body.” These independent, low budget films, can’t afford to show much. The directors and crew need to get creative on how to build the tension and make things scary. Pinhead, by example, probably has less than 8 minutes on screen total out of the films 94 minute running time. Jaws, another example of a monster that is barely shown. Granted Jaws is due to technical issues, but the lack of vision of the monster forced Spielberg to get creative with other kills. This made the film scarier.
Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Jaws, Hellraiser, Psycho, Friday the 13th, all of these films are considered iconic, classic, staples of modern horror. Every other film in their genre is compared to them and as you begin to add budget to them and sequels the quality diminishes.Is the secret to successful horror a distinct lack of budget?
Look at the modern day films, such as Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity, both extremely cheap to make and both insanely successful in the box office. Both rely on what they don’t show you and because of that are scarier. As they progress, ok lets focus on PA here, Blair Witch 2 was …godawful, they become less intense and less effective in arousing a fear emotion from us. The bigger the budget, the less scary movies become as the director is able to follow whim than be limited by it. Those limitations are what pushes the creative minds to achieve success. Even Michael Bay worked better with less budget, check out the video for Meatloafs I would do anything for Love as an example.
So Hellraiser? Is it scary?
Well, it is from one of the most beautifully deranged minds in horror, Clive Barker. Based on one of his own stories The Hellbound Heart, which was nearly the title but the studio was afraid someone would think it was a romance. Boy would they have been surprised. He is both writer and director, so any changes from the original story really are on him and those limitations I spoke to earlier.
The movie starts out with the story of Frank, a man so depraved that life itself holds no sensation for him and he explores something to find new heights of pleasure and pain. For this he pays a price, as all things come with one. We cut to some time later when Franks brother Larry and his wife Julia move into his old home. Though Julia has some very specific memories of the place and Frank. Larry’s daughter Kirsty is also moving back close to home and stops by for a visit. A small accident and a little blood later and Frank is freed from his prison and much like the Mummy needs to pull himself back together to be whole again. Julia agrees to help, but as all murder plots go things begin to unravel as the bodies stack up.
Notice, no mention of the monsters? There’s a reason for that. They play such a small part in the film, but are special to the horror. They are the Cenobites, the guardians of a place not dissimilar to hell, a place where pleasure and pain become one. They have such weight on screen their physical presence, even without dialogue tells you all you need to know. But then they do give them dialogue, the figure now known as Pinhead, but then Cenobite leader makes Hell almost tempting as it is terrifying. I don’t normally put quotes from films in a review but honestly…how do you not get chills from some of these lines?
“Oh, no tears please. It’s a waste of good suffering.”
“Explorers…in the further regions of experience. Demons to some. Angels to others.”
It’s just excellent. Sadly, most of the acting strength comes from those few minutes of Doug Bradley on screen as Pinhead. Andrew Robinson as Larry, Claire Higgins as Julia, and Sean Chapman/Oliver Smith as Frank do ok. They don’t sell me anything, other than the build up. I almost feel as if they are going through the motions. Frank probably is one of the more terrifying villains with his look through the movie. Kirsty is our typical Last Girl though, strong in ways she didn’t know she could be. She reminds me much of Nancy from Nightmare on Elm Street. She’s a survivor and when the cenobites show the first time, her mind saves her not any muscle.
From a technical standpoint, the movie is one of the more grotesque out there. The lack of budget forced much in the way of practical effects and we are thankful. Every effect surrounding Frank is a thing of exquisite grotesquery. The Cenobites are iconic images that at one point Barker thought might be too silly in bright light. Even the final creature, the machinist, while you can tell is a puppet by some respects is far more terrifying than a CG version of it ever could be.
Hellraiser is one of the scariest films ever made in the creature feature department. It gives us a manifestation of hell that we can understand and are afraid of. The thought of suffering is bad, but seeing a potential option for its outcome is unpleasant. It is a gore flick don’t get me wrong and some effects do not hold up all these years later (and some didn’t hold up then); but it is an iconic film of horror.
Should you watch it though? Honestly, this one is only for the fans of gore in their movies. Psychological horror fans probably won’t get nearly as much out of it.
Hellraiser is an icon for a reason and it will stand the test of time, but it is certainly not for everyone.
So…what is your pleasure?