There’s something very disturbing about the monsters of Hellraiser, and it’s not just their looks (although that aspect of them is terrifying). It’s that they’re so…calm. Almost like they’re bored with the idea of having to rip your soul apart, as if it’s an unwanted detour on their path to the next extreme S&M event they’re partaking in. Unlike most monstrous antagonists in horror films, the suffering and pain a character endures when in their hands is a somewhat impersonal affair; you were dumb enough to call upon them, and now they have to go through the effort of obliterating you before they can head home for the day. They can’t be reasoned or bargained with; they can’t be coerced or bought off; hell, they can barely be understood as beings. In fact, they don’t even want to be there today, but some monsters called out sick and their boss is riding their ass to get their soul quotas up this month.
I’m a fan of the Hellraiser franchise for this and other fairly odd reasons. I like that Pinhead is very blasé about his work; I like that the cenobites are humanoid monsters whose impossible physicality crosses the threshold of uncanny into wildly disturbing; I like that it’s always a no-win proposition in getting involved with the puzzle box, making it a clean plot device; and I just like Clive Barker’s ability to bring the most fantastical, weird, and high-concept ideas for films to life. I’ve already watched a Clive Barker-inspired movie during this series of reviews and have mentioned my appreciation for the (in my opinion) horror masterpiece In the Mouth of Madness, so I’m treading on familiar ground in this review. Unlike most of the films I’ve been writing about this month, I’ve seen Hellraiser (and the following films in the series) plenty of times before. And it’s just the bee’s knees.
Pictured: Me preparing for another viewing of Hellraiser.
But why? I posit that it’s a very adult horror film, which centers around a thoroughly terrible person as the central figure and whose plot is spurred on by infidelity; there’s pretty much no redemption at the end for anybody, save for the one young innocent in the film, and the cosmic horror that intrudes upon these people and their tawdry affairs drops the hammer so hard on their reality that it destroys any semblance of normalcy once it’s introduced.
So we open the film on a freaky-deaky dude who’s in it for the kicks buying a sharp-looking puzzle box in Morocco from the guy who sold the gremlin in Gremlins. Moments later, he’s back at home, having solved the puzzle box with the reward being ripped apart by hooks on chains. With the room looking like a rejected set from Aliens with hanging chains and viscera scattered all over, a dark figure walks over, restores the box to its original order, and instantly cleans up the joint.
CUT TO: this same house, now with a couple (British Rizzo and Mylanta Commercial Star) doing their first walkthrough of the property. It’s this guy’s inherited house, and he thinks his brother may still live there. After surveying a few rooms, they find that the place is a mess (there are maggots all over the kitchen, and they seem to be smoking a cigar(?)) and it seems like nobody’s lived there for a while. Rizzo goes up to a disgusting looking bedroom and starts rifling through some crude homemade pornography Mylanta’s brother left behind. This is where we start getting the idea that Rizzo and the brother (Frank. His name is Frank.) had something going on behind Mylanta’s back.
Mylanta and British Rizzo at home.
Anywhoo, Mylanta can’t handle the moving men because he’s a chump among goons, and his daughter is also a character in this movie. Of course, Rizzo’s the evil stepmother character and their relationship is Frosty the Snowman, at best.
A little bit about making a satisfying horror protagonist/victim: British Rizzo is a thoroughly unlikable character. She has cheated on her husband with his gross brother, has a major attitude (*salutes*) when it comes to everything—from the move to her husband to her step-daughter to their friends, etc.—and comes across as dour and angry. In other words, she’s the kind of awful person who deserves the horror that they bring upon themselves. So while their yuppie friends stop by for a housewarming party but she has a fucking problem (of course) and goes upstairs to pout.
There, she finds that Frank (presumed missing) has been there all along: when moving in earlier, her husband cut his hand and spilled some blood on the attic floor. Well, wouldn’t you know, blood is just what people whose souls have been ripped apart need to come back to life! Frank’s a gooey mess at this point and the practical effects that went into his construction are appropriately disgusting. So he’s like, I need blood to come back to life, then we’ll ditch my loser brother and haul ass to Lollapalooza. Being the despicable person that she is, Rizzo agrees. So there’s the setup: her husband’s brother that she had an affair with was killed by the cenobites and only human blood and flesh can bring him back. So he’s just going to be stuck in that room waiting for her to bring fresh meat to him to regenerate from. At this point, he looks like the cover of a jazz album that a warty squash released.
Kind of Eww
There’s also 80’s-tastic teen plots involving the daughter that I don’t care about going on in this movie. So.
Awful Rizzo starts seducing dudes to bring back to the house for her gooey boyfriend to consume. The first one she snares is a bona fide loser who gets fresh with her, so he gets a hammer to the head from behind by the evil stepmother in every fairy tale. The glob crawls over to chow down, and indeed he’s being made whole into the disgusting human being he once was. He’s still totes gross-looking, like one of the Bodies exhibits, only he’s not an executed Chinese dissident.
Then Frank the Fetus reveals that they’re probably going to have a cenobite problem soon if she doesn’t get more human flesh into his tummy and they get the hell out of there. And honestly? Rizzo’s pretty into the whole “I’m going to seduce men to their grisly deaths so my boyfriend can come back to life” plan and in general comes across as batfuck crazy. The daughter works at a pet shop and some homeless dude comes in who eats a bunch of bugs or whatever and can we get to the damn cenobite factory already?
Rizzo keeps doing the casual sex/murder bait-and-switch, getting more apt to the task with each kill. Frank looks like The Transparent Man. Shit! He’s even smoking cigarettes now! And over a smoke, he explains the whole cenobite thing. If you didn’t click that link to get the story: A puzzle box opens doors to new experiences, cenobites are agony-inflicting agents to this cause, and they offer the opportunity for their victims to experience “pain and pleasure, indivisible,” which doesn’t sound great to me, but hey different strokes move the world. Rizzo’s down to clown with this pack of jokers.
While having distraction sex with her husband, her corpse-like lover enters the room and slices dead rats up at the foot of the bed. Her donk husband wonders why she’s crying in the middle of lovemaking and then leaves the room without a follow-up because he’s a donk.
Blood-covered, skinless Frank now wears a suit around the house to feel dressy and wonders why they just can’t kill his brother/her husband, but I wouldn’t expect less from a man who parties with cenobites and lives to tell about it.
Still from the rejected Men’s Warehouse/Hellraiser tie-in print campaign.
At this point, the daughter character pops by and witnesses fucked-up Uncle Frank devouring his latest victim. He corners her in his murder room (and keeps referring to himself as “daddy” to her because he’s fucking gross) and grabs at her. But she gets her hand on the puzzle box and throws it out the window. She then kicks rocks, scooping the box up from the front yard on her way out and has a flashback to twenty seconds earlier when Frank kept saying “daddy” (I told you this movie was horrific).
She passes the fuck out and wakes up in the nut house (always with people being committed to insane asylums in horror films…). A menacing doctor just hands her the box back. She starts dicking around with it, and guess what, bitch? You just opened the door to Hell in the wall of your room. She walks through the valley of the shadow of death, and there is some serious shit happening in there. An eldritch abomination that sounds like a boar and looks like I don’t fucking know what chases her out of the hallway and back into her room, so she decides to fuck with the box some more because that worked out so well the first time two minutes earlier.
“Come here often?”
Even more demented shit happens, and finally we’re getting some gosh darn cenobites in this here Hellraiser. Let’s just take a second to observe the character of Pinhead: he’s a goddamn boss and a total pro throughout. Here are some choice quotes from him in this scene:
- “The box…you opened it. We came.”
- “Explorers… in the further regions of experience. Demons to some, angels to others.”
- “Oh, no tears please. It’s a waste of good suffering!”
- “We’ll tear your soul apart!”
“I’m very quotable.”
Pinhead’s become a popular horror character and a bit of a cultural icon in his own right outside of this franchise, and it’s easy to understand why: a bald man has a head articulated with a hundred pins, wears tight bondage outfits as daily wear, and is unnervingly calm despite the madness that surrounds him. He’s comes from nowhere (well, nowhere that we can understand), his motivations are pretty simple (you open the box, we show up and rip your soul apart, repeat), and he’s not in the bargaining game. What’s worse than an unstoppable monster? An unstoppable monster that has no boundaries in our world that can protect you from its wrath. Once that puzzle box starts, your ass is his.
But the daughter saves her skin for the moment by ratting on her newly resurrected uncle, who has seemingly escaped their brand of exquisite eternal suffering. Pinhead doesn’t like red in his ledger, so he corrals his ceno-pals, says later skater, and poofs daughter et. al. out of this crazy town.
“So should we carpool, or…?”
Kirsty (that’s the daughter’s name!) shows up at the house looking for dad, and she finds him…but it’s actually Frank in a Daddy Disguise by wearing his skin oooo! And ew, because the scene before this was Rizzo seemingly having sex with Mylanta, but she was doing it with her old boyfriend/husband’s brother with the brother wearing her husband/his brother’s skin. Paging Dr. Freud! Because I need some cocaine to wrap my head around this twisted path of pain and pleasure, indivisible.
The cenobite gang show up and are like, where the fuck is Frank? She experiences a bad revelation about Frank being in a Dad suit, and he says daddy a bunch to her again, so she tears her father’s flesh from Frank’s face. He pulls a switchblade and is about to ice her but whoops! He stabs Rizzo instead. Being the gentleman that he is, Frank eats her soul (essence? I’m confused as to what he’s doing here, exactly). She looks like a corn husk after he’s done feeding off of her.
She hides, he seeks, she ducks into a room and it’s surprising how unfamiliar all of these people are with a house they’ve lived in before. He gets the drop on her and she has to look at her dad’s skinned corpse in the murder room, but oh yes, can it be? It is! Cenobites!
“We got one!”
There’s Porky, Chompy, Sinead, and Pinhead, and they came here to have a meat-and-hook party that’s off the chain with Frank. What can I say about this scene? The gore, the atmosphere, the cenobites—this is some effective body horror.
Is this pain and pleasure, indivisible? If so, pass.
But the cenobites aren’t done yet with Kirsty. “We have such sites to show you,” Pinhead coos. But somehow this girl figures out how the puzzle box from Hell works and banishes these mofos. Au revoir, le morsures du ceno.
Only not really because we go through the cenobite funhouse as they all get destroyed here one by one. It kind of undercuts their threat as supernatural creatures when falling debris can take them out of the game. And the eldritch abomination that she encountered in the hallway to Hell claws ineffectually at her, but she must have the instruction manual to the puzzle box of doom because she shuts this horseshit down toot sweet.
So Krista stands outside her house (Hey! Her inheritance! When a cenobite closes a door…) and her boyfriend (Remember him? Neither do I.) shows up like, am I too late for the cenobites? So they go to an abandoned lot downtown that has a dozen separate fires going on for some reason and—I shit you not—that weirdo bum from that one scene waaay back in the pet store walks into the fire and turns into a goddamn dragon!
AKA Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, Mother of Dragons, etc.
It flies away, we zoom out to reveal the puzzle box being sold in the same creepy foreign café Frank had bought it in at the beginning, and one-two-three, we’re out!
Hellraiser is a pretty well-known and influential horror film. Released in 1987, it has since inspired a whopping nine feature films, along with comic books and ancillary merchandise. “Pinhead” has since become the kind of Halloween costume that, if done right, wins costume contests and can be genuinely frightening. Practical effects-driven horror, particularly with horror films centered around the occult and body horror, and art direction in horror in general, has been heavily influenced by the evocative cenobite set-pieces and Gothic aesthetic of the film as a whole. It’s an R-rated horror movie that leans heavily on that R with its character portrayals; instead of a bunch of kids being stabbed to death by a knife-wielding maniac, this movie shows how degenerate, responsible-seeming adults can be when driven into the depths of horror by their own selfish desires.
Besides this, the cenobites are cool villains: they’re not broken birds, or a traumatized man-child, or some dorky curse or ghost or myth accidentally brought into being. In fact, part of their “appeal” is that they are a true Other: not even humans, or mortal, or anything. We can’t comprehend what it is they are doing, or why they are doing it; they just cruise around the outer limits of experience, tearing apart the souls of those that call upon them, but otherwise aren’t malevolent forces that are hanging around our ethereal plain looking for opportunities. Again: they mostly seem a little annoyed that they have to stop by to destroy you, the dummy who played around with the puzzle box of doom. The cenobites are also hyper-stylized, unique monsters that horror fans have been losing their minds over since their introduction and may be the sole reason Fangoria Magazine existed from 1987 to 1996.
Clive Barker’s horror films are Stephen King’s equivalent in cinema: bizarre, humanoid monsters partially created by protagonists, who are then introduced to a hellish existence beyond normal human comprehension. It’s the horror of not only the unknown, but of the familiar suddenly becoming the unknown.
With its Gothic cinematic style, incredibly realized supernatural villains, wildly graphic practical effects, nihilistic outlook, and the sheer madness that its awful protagonist invites into her life, Hellraiser is a touchstone film in modern horror. Even thirty years after its release, its special effects and horrific tone hold up. If you haven’t already, unlock that puzzle box and take in a viewing of Hellraiser. Be careful, though: it may rip your soul apart. Four out of Four cenobites.