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August 29, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #191 - Hellraiser

When I'm asked to explain how I can watch horror movies - usually by someone who insists that they just can't (not won't) watch them - I often state that seeing unthinkable acts and disgusting images on screen is something that can make me feel stronger in my day-to-day life. Some people have trouble seeing the line between art and reality - look at all those silly arguments about violence or sex in movies causing real life violence or sex - but I've survived a lifetime as a horror fan because I always remember that the screen I'm watching the movie on is quite literally an impermeable barrier. I'm on one side of it, whatever I see or experience is on the other side, and there is no damage that the things on the other side can do to me.
This is a rather simple theory - I'm sure that if I watched footage of real people being murdered all day it would probably test my sanity, and filmmakers have done an increasingly good job of mimicking reality over the years - but I'm a rather simple man. Drawing that line in the sand allows me to push myself to view the strangest and most intense things on film, and as long as I remember that I'm in control of my side of the screen I am safe. That doesn't mean I'm putting up a wall to what the movie has to offer - I have to let some of what I see effect me if I really want to get the most out of it - it just means that I am aware enough to keep myself grounded while I experience the film.
It's funny to me that the first movie I think of when I discuss this belief is one that revolves around a device that opens the barrier between reality and depravity. But that film, Hellraiser, is a film that always makes me think about how important it is to maintain a distance between myself and whatever evils might be on the other side.
It would be easy to talk about the evil in Hellraiser by looking at the Cenobites, the group of disfigured demons who exist in the film's version of hell and make their way into reality by the film's conclusion, but that's a short sighted view of what Hellraiser has to offer. Evil is present in Hellraiser from the very beginning of the film, and Barker makes sure that we are at least slightly uncomfortable with everyone and everything in the film.
After the film establishes the infamous puzzle box (known to us horror purists as The Lament Configuration, though I'm not sure that phrase is used in the first film) and what it can do in the opening scenes, Barker introduces the family at the center of his story - and it's really easy to dislike them. Andrew Robinson, who is most recognizable as the Zodiac Scorpio killer from Dirty Harry, plays Larry, the husband/father at the center of the story, and his actions are actually those of a decent guy - he's a loyal husband, he loves his daughter, and he's trying to make the most out of this crappy old house he's inherited. At the same time, he just seems slimy. I'm sure this is part of why Robinson was cast - especially with what he's asked to do late in the film - but even when he's playing the nice guy early in the film it's difficult to trust him.

It's possible we feel that way about him because he's married to Julia, played by Clare Higgins, who is established immediately as a frigid creature who had a torrid affair with her husband's brother, Frank.  Barker takes the time to show us how this affair began - to me it appears that Frank forces the issue and Julia develops an addiction to his dominance - which develops Frank as a hedonistic pleasure seeker and Julia as someone who will also give her self willingly to fulfill her needs. Julia also has Larry in her pocket, and there's a recurring theme of him offering to do things for her while she reciprocates nothing toward him.  Barker perfectly sums this up when she seems repulsed by the religious icons their inherited home, and Larry instantly discards them with the trash - almost inviting evil into this home.
The most innocent character in the film is Larry's daughter Kirsty, played by Ashley Laurence, but she seems more like a lost puppy than a strong character in the film. She is the first to confront the evil forces in the film - both the resurrected Frank and the Cenobites - and nothing about her reaction to them makes her seem like someone who has the ability to stand against evil. Most horror films that provide an escape from reality are based around a force who can stand against evil, but the only thing Kirsty can do when she is faced with the Cenobites is to be an informant and offer her evil Uncle in exchange for her own life. When I look at Kirsty against other final girls of the era - Nancy Thompson from A Nightmare on Elm Street comes to mind - there's not a lot to like about her.
Most people scoff at a film where none of the characters seem to be a force for good, but to me this is a key part of Barker's attempt to make Hellraiser uncomfortable from start to finish. These characters are surrounded by grimy and gross images, with the camera focusing in on things like dirt-filled fingernails and bowls of rotten food and maggots, throughout the film. These images set the tone for the blood splatter that will follow, and when we do see hooks rip the flesh of the Lament Configuration's victims the camera is as close to the action as possible. I've seen Hellraiser more times than I'd like to admit, and I still find that it has more moments - both gory and just plain gross - that make me look away from the screen than almost any horror movie out there.
So, to sum it up, we've got a film about people who do evil things in grimy places that features multiple grisly murders, one hedonist who is bloodily reanimated from the inside out, and a force of demons that are disfigured and modified for maximum grossness.  There's nothing to like about the characters, it's hard to watch without experience physical discomfort, and the only thing it accomplishes is that it unleashes hell on the people who deserve it. (OK, it also has one of the best musical scores of any horror movie ever made. That's a real redeeming quality of it) And somewhere inside that film, I find peace.
The short version of what I was saying just then is that Hellraiser is a story about people who don't recognize the figurative barrier between good and evil. And that leads to them crossing the literal barrier between their reality and a pure, evil reality. Whenever I watch Hellraiser, I realize that I am strong enough to know the difference between good and evil. Is it bad that it takes this much depravity to help me see that? Maybe, but that's a different story for a different day. At the end of this day Hellraiser strikes me as an inspiring work of art, because there's a beautiful feeling that I get after I sink deep into its world and come out safe on the other side. Pinhead might tell me it's "a waste of good suffering", but he's on the other side of that screen. He has no power over me.


Unknown said...

I also love Hellraiser, and I find that it is easy to get sucked into the bleak atmosphere.

I remember having a dream about Pinhead where he was chasing me through an abandoned airport. One minute I was with my family, the next we were separated by hundreds of hooks. Simply terrifying.

Enbrethiliel said...


I've been aware that the usual forces of good are not well represented in Hellraiser, which is one reason why I've hesitated to watch it; but you make a good point in this review about that not automatically putting the movie on the side of evil.

One novel I really love is Anthony Burgess's Clockwork Orange, which makes its point that being forced to choose the good is just as bad as freely choosing the bad by having a totally depraved protagonist/narrator. I always come away from the rereading a little queasy and need a few weeks to stop feeling repulsed by classical music. Which you might know, if you've read it or seen the movie, is exactly what happens to Alex! My favourite professor explained that Burgess wanted his book about brainwashing to be a tool of brainwashing as well, so that effect is bound to happen. Anyway, what worries me now is that Hellraiser will be even more powerful than A Clockwork Orange is and that I'll take a long while to come down after watching it.

Nonetheless, great review, The Mike!