“Oh, no tears please. It’s a waste of good suffering!”
Imagine a talented artist sitting at a table in a restaurant. Suddenly a great idea whips across his mind and he procures a pen and sketches out the idea on a napkin. The end result might obviously demonstrate some brilliance. There might be great technique, great ideas, and a striking final image. One day it might hang in a particularly complete exhibit. However you couldn’t help but want to see the final version. Maybe the sketch would hang next to it in the exhibit, the fleshed out, complete version hanging next to the sudden inspiration, revealing some of the artistic process. Watching Hellraiser is a bit like looking at that sketch and knowing it was never completed.
Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the film. I’m looking forward to rewatching it, maybe even diving into the rest of the franchise. I think it was atmospheric, smart, thematically strong, and frightening. The problem is that it feels entirely devoid of meat and substance. There’s just enough implied by the sketch that you can fill in a lot of the blanks, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel, like, well, gaps. Absences. Room that could’ve been filled. Room that was intended to filled.
The movie was written and directed by Clive Barker, who was adapting his own writing into a movie. He’d only made two short films before, so Hellraiser, based on the story Hellbound Heart, was his first feature film. The crafting and ideas are mainly his contribution.
The plot revolves around a married couple, Larry and Julia, and their adult daughter Kirsty. They move into an old house owned by Larry’s missing brother, Frank. Frank’s disappearance serves as the opening of the film. He performs some sort of ceremony, plays with a puzzle box, and is carted off and torn apart by frightening apparitions. The plot kicks into motion when Larry accidentally bleeds in the place where Frank died. He leaves the room and Frank begins to reform, but the resurrection comes to a halt before he’s more than a bloody skeleton.
Frank approaches Julia, as they had a secret relationship in the past. He has come to the conclusion that more blood will bring him back to life. Despite several better options Julia decides to seduce men and lure them to the attic. Once they’re up there she brains them with a hammer and Frank slurps up their blood. This stretch of the film is part of the lightly shaded portion of the movie. On paper the concept of having a menacing zombie in the attic maliciously manipulating one half of a couple seems rife with dramatic possibilities. That concept practically oozes tension. There is some tension to be found, and just enough interest maintained to justify this stretch, but just barely.
The movie really picks up when the puzzle box and the Cenobites get involved again. The movie’s unfinished themes about sexual pleasure become more apparent and there’s a great Lovecraftian pantheon hinted at. Even the stuff with Frank really ramps up, generating some genuinely tense, startlingly, disturbing moments. Much like the last movie I watched, Phenomena, this takes place in the last chunk of the movie and really helps justify everything that came before it.
Unfortunately Hellraiser lets its budgetary restrictions get the better of it in some ways. The cinematography is alright, the music is okay, the acting is bad. It just lends the whole thing an unimportant feeling. Phenomena had this luxurious languid uneasiness to it that helped flesh out the potentially stale sequences. Hellraiser merely has schlock, which is effective initially but has demising returns. For the music, the studio refused to use a soundtrack Coil had made for the film. This is blasphemous. That could only have improved the movie. Clive Barker loved it, but the studio didn’t want to pay royalties so they chose a house band.
The bigger problem is the complete lack of characters. No one in this movie is interesting or engaging. This is especially problematic when the format of the film automatically lends itself to character piece type treatment. It’s remarkable how good the movie is given that it’s a character piece without characters. Again, it feels like a sketch that needed filling out. There are just enough broad strokes that you can’t help but fill in the negative space.
There is a load to like about this movie. It’s legitimately unsettling. A lot of the make-up effects are great. The resurrection and the zombie look great. The Cenobites look amazing. The hall critter, despite its occasionally visible wheels, looks cool. You can see they had to make the budget stretch, and it stretched just to the point of having good monsters. The house burning down is almost hilariously off-camera. The visual effects were apparently all hand drawn by Clive Barker, one other guy, and a lot of alcohol. This seems pretty self-apparent after reading it.
Easily the highlight of the movie is the implied cosmology of the Hellraiser world. The Cenobites, the weird hall thing, that monster at the end. It’s this grim, sadomasochistic, Lovecraftian, pantheon that really makes an impact. There’s a fascinating world dripping into the corner of Hellraiser, and you’re left wanting to watch those corners explored more thoroughly. And with more budget standing behind. You’re left absolutely wanting to know more about The Priest (Barker hated the moniker Pinhead), The Chatterer, Butterball, and Deep Throat. You want to know what that entity is protecting the box. Or not necessarily know the details, as that would kill some of the effect, but you at least want to spend more time with them. Absorb the details you wish were there.
Because basically if the whole movie is a loose-sketch, it’s a really wonderful one. The ideas and imagery of the sketch are sticky and absorbing. It’s impactful, emotional, compelling, maybe even self-evidently brilliant. The problem is it’s still a sketch. It still feels unfinished.
Next up: I liked Return of the Living Dead enough to give another Dan O’Bannon horror movie a try.