This is another 80s horror film that has become iconic for its central villain. In this case, the character of Pinhead. Before anyone asks, yes, those are actual pins and not extensions of his body. I thought that is what they were when I was a child. He and his “colleagues” are heavily into sadomasochism. The character is certainly grotesque enough. Clive Barker is certainly a frightening man for having dreamed him up. But is the film deserving of its “horror classic” status?
The film is about a man, Frank, who buys a mysterious puzzle box that will give him the ultimate “pain and pleasure.” He opens it and is torn apart by the Cenobites (of which Pinhead is one). Later, his brother’s family moves into his house. His brother cuts himself on a nail, somehow leading to Frank getting resurrected as a literal living corpse. He convinces his sister in law (who he had an affair with) to bring him human victims to sacrifice so that he may live again. Meanwhile, the Cenobites are trying to locate him and stop his rebirth as he is the only one to ever “escape” them.
The premise is quite ludicrous. Most horror films have ludicrous premises. No one has ever answered how the Bates Motel managed to stay in business all those years. But that is not exactly the point. Horror films seek to do one of two things. They either exist to a) shock us with gore effects that quickly become endurance tests or b) address human fears and emotions by showing the darkest recesses of the human mind.
Hellraiser accomplishes the first item very well. The film is violent and shocking. Certain sections (particularly Frank’s initial resurrection) had me squirming. That doesn’t sound like much, but it is a very rare occurrence these days for any film to bother me in that way. Plus, as stated, the Cenobites themselves are all shocking figures that would certainly belong in any nightmare. Time and time again, the film throws curveballs at the audience, playing them like a piano. Now who was it that recommended films should do that again? Well, I am glad someone took his advice.
I also appreciate the fact that the film succeeds WITHOUT THE USE OF CGI! Every effect in the film is the result of a special effects technician creating it. That scene above? Done through stop motion. Does it look fake? No, in fact it looks more real than CGI. Why? Because you can see the human touch. You can see the detail. You can see the care that went into the effect. Computers don’t exactly have that level of emotion in their work. All too often, the works looks more like it belongs in an animated film. When actors interact with such items, it looks completely unconvincing. You can almost see the tennis ball they are really looking at on the set. Presumably, this film involved the actors in full make up. The actors had to interact with that fact. Sure, they knew it was just make up. But every day, they were looking at man who looked convincingly enough like he had no skin. Their faces and their performances show that.
So, the film is good at shocking its audience. But what about the second part? Well, it certainly wants to discuss the darkest recesses of the human mind. Why else bring up sadomasochism? But it never succeeds on that level. Just when it is about to discuss that theme further, it chooses instead to toss its well executed effects at the audience again. Why? Why does it stubbornly refuse to go deeper? The film succeeded in doing the scares so well. Where is the rest?
That was the ultimate disappointment for me. Everything about the film stimulated my imagination and my fears. I wanted to know more about the Cenobites. Who were they? Who were the people that sought them out? We never get a clear explanation. What was Frank feeling when he was under their control? We only get one clue. Without trying to spoil the movie, it is in the statement “Jesus wept.” Yet the only thing that does is recall scenes in The Exorcist of demons masturbating to crucifixes. It didn’t convincingly say what was on Frank’s mind. I wanted to know more. In a good way, I guess. The first thing I did upon finishing the film was look up Clive Barker on wikipedia. Not exactly the proudest item I can look up. But the bug was there. And there is a vast mythology behind the characters. Care was taken in this story. So, why was that not on screen? I know there are sequels that go even further to answer these questions. Your point? A film should stand up on its own. We are not talking about a television series here.
Yes, the preceding paragraph makes it sound like I absolutely hated the film. But I didn’t. I was intrigued the whole way through and ultimately felt rewarded by watching the film. It is a B-grade horror movie that works on the exact same level as Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy. But it wanted to me so much more. I still recommend it. This is the sort of thing that films, particularly horror films, should be striving to meet. Often, the modern horror film won’t even strive for that first level. This film did, and did so very well. I guess it belongs on the recesses of cult film where it currently is. A little more finesse, and maybe, just maybe, the film could truly attain classic status.