I’m ashamed to admit that up until now I’ve never seen Clive Barker’s horror opus “Hellraiser.” In spite of it being regarded as a classic by many horror buffs and standing as a bonafide Gothic masterpiece, “Hellraiser” has managed to elude me for years. I’ve only managed to watch portions of the sequel, and the entirety of the third entry on late night cable as a child, but beyond that, I could never set down on the original film. One thing I loved about “Hellraiser” in the end was that Barker never holds our hands throughout the story he draws for the audience. Rather than making on the nose exposition, he instead allows us to explore this horror fantasy with the characters.
The key scene in the film involves Kirsty and her discovery of the puzzle box that opens up a variety of doors for her that lead in to hell or heaven and we manage to go along for the ride. I found myself sitting with wide eyes watching and figuring out with Kirsty as she ventured in to the depths of this box gazing in horror at the creatures that awaited her. I guarantee once the remake is finally in theaters, this scene will feature a grotesque amount of over explanation and flash. Barker doesn’t play his audience for saps, instead he just gives us a key in to this world and allows us to unfold it with poor Kirsty. Ashley Laurence gives about as strong a performance as most final girls of eighties horror, providing a very complex performance as this lackadaisical and somewhat rebellious young woman who is forced to deal with a stepmother she dislikes all for the sake of her mild mannered father who–for reasons unfathomable–is in love with her.
Her evolution over the course of the story is quite compelling as she struggles to grasp the sheer insanity and mind-blowing dimensions behind what is unraveling before her very eyes. What begins as a mere renovation soon evolves in to something of a look in to a family’s personal demons as Kirsty’s father and mother Julia prepare to move in to his brother Frank’s old house. Thanks to a bad gash, Kirsty’s dad Larry awakens the seemingly dead brother Frank from limbo who is now an amorphous monster incapable of taking form unless he is granted the blood of the innocent. Julia, once Frank’s lover, now does his bidding luring men to the house for Frank to feed on. But as Julia descends in to evil at the will of Frank, the cenobites Frank escaped are looking for him and are not prone to being merciful to escapees. Most of the film is told through dream sequences and flashbacks that act as a way to show how evil can seduce any of us whether we realize it or not.
Larry is very seduced by brother’s private life, while his wife was already seduced by Frank’s own willingness to kill and violate others. Kirsty finds the seductive power in the cenobites, but chooses instead to save her father who is always on the verge of losing his life to his gruesome undead brother waiting for his next unwitting victim to savor his own sense of self-preservation. The cenobites are horrific beings, figures who hold many secrets and surprises that are never quite comprehended by any character in the film. Barker thankfully keeps much of the cenobites world ambiguous leaving the audience in the dark to imagine for themselves where they originate from and what they’re capable of doing. Barker manages to implement large amounts of dread and Gothic atmosphere throughout what is considered something of a tragic love triangle, all of which comes full circle when we learn that the puzzle box is just the beginning in to the descent of pure evil.
One aspect of the story that’s never indicated is the connection of blood to Frank and the puzzle box. It’s implied in the prologue that the puzzle box is somehow connected to the bloodline of this family, but then we’re later told that Frank needs blood from anyone to re-form his body. Later Frank is able to re-form in full body and skin by taking the life of his brother, but why does he end up resembling him? Is it something in the bloodline or is Frank able to take skin as well? If it’s the latter then why does it take Larry’s blood to re-vive him? And could Frank take anyone’s skin? Why didn’t he implement this ability when Julia was luring the men to the house? And what if Larry never cut his hand, would anyone’s blood have re-awakened him from hell? And if the cenobites are a malevolent force, how did Frank escape the pits of hell to remain at his house? Most importantly, why was the winged messenger following Kirsty around if the puzzle box was at Frank’s house all along?
What psychic connection did she bear to the entire puzzle box and mystery to begin with? Was the entire climax just something of a open ended mystery hinting that Kirsty was stuck in hell regardless if she escaped the hospital or not? Did the cenobites ever let her go? Most of these questions are left lingering by the time the credits have rolled and what are ambiguities more so become nagging holes that were never quite filled. While not a masterpiece, “Hellraiser” is assuredly one of the stronger entries in the “Hellraiser” series and is a sharply written and entertaining horror entry from Barker. And in spite of an array of nagging questions that are left up in the air or are just arguable glaring gaping plot holes never quite resolved, “Hellraiser” is a film that’s managed to mostly live up to its hype with sharp grim direction and tight writing from Clive Barker who turns his story of a puzzle box invoking the forces of hell in to an experience rather than doing the work for us. That form of storytelling is a dying art.