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Fright Fest 2019: Hellraiser (1987) & Hellbound (1988)

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Hellraiser: 1987

Written and Directed by: Clive Barker

Starring: Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, and Doug Bradley, et. al.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II: 1988

Directed by: Tony Randel

Written by: Peter Atkins/Story by Clive Barker

Starring: Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Kenneth Cranham, Doug Bradley, Barbie Wilde, Nicholas Vince, et. al.

Review by: D. S. Ullery

You’ll notice I’ve opted to combine my analysis of the first two films in the long running Hellraiser series into one long piece, as opposed to separating them into two articles. No, I’m not being lazy (well, maybe a little). This is actually a conscientious decision, arising from my opinion that the first two chapters of the saga inspired by Clive Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart are so inexorably intertwined they essentially function as two halves of the same, epic film. I’ve opted to approach my review accordingly. 

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Let’s begin with a look at the plot. For the exactly eight people who are unaware, the original Hellraiser tells the story of the Cotton family, trying to make a go of it in Britain as patriarch Larry (an as-always wonderful Andrew Robinson, who really is the human heart of the film) moves them into his family home. We’re shown early on there’s friction between daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence, the stand-in for the audience and the hero of this story) and her step-mother Julia ( a deliciously icy Clare Higgins), the latter of whom- unbeknownst to her well meaning spouse- has had an affair with Larry’s seedy, lowlife brother Frank  (Sean Chapman, oozing sleaze with every line).

Before we’re introduced to the family, we’re treated to an extremely creepy opening scene set an undetermined amount of time before the arrival of the Cottons. This sequence is in itself a work of twisted genius, showing Frank sitting in a dark room, solving a strange, cubed puzzle box he’d purchased earlier from a street merchant.  Opening the box (which carries with it occult properties) summons a collective of terrifying demonic figures we will eventually come to know as the Cenobites. The arrival of these beings is underscored with a dark majesty, announced by rays of eerie, pale light blazing between cracks in the walls as the sonorous chime of bells echoes through the room.  These beings literally tear him apart with hooked chains, condemning him to an implied eternity of torment. 

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Keep in mind, this is all happening in the first few minutes. This opening is both startlingly gruesome (one shot shows a Cenobite piecing the remains of Frank’s face together ) and brilliant in that it tells us virtually nothing about the Cenobites. For that matter, we don’t even know the identity of the man being ripped to shreds at this point.  By beginning his narrative on this note, Barker effectively whets the appetite of horror fans to learn more. I have nothing but admiration for a director/writer who can so skillfully manipulate audiences this early on in the story. The closest comparison I can make to how well this scene works is the title credit sequence involving Tina that launches the original A Nightmare On Elm Street.

Moving forward: As noted earlier,  we witness the Cotton family moving in during the next scene. An accident involving a nail during the move results in blood being splattered on the floorboards of an upstairs room, which we learn was the same space where Frank had been killed. The blood serves as a catalyst to partially resurrect Frank*, who emerges as a skinless wraith, watching and hiding in the shadows. 

Eventually, Julia discovers her former lover upstairs. Initially she recoils, but he exploits her yearning for the sexual chemistry they’d shared to manipulate her into bringing him victims to feed on. The way it works is that the more blood he absorbs, the more complete his physical reconstruction is. After some convincing, Julia agrees, essentially becoming a serial killer as she seduces and then lures unsuspecting suitors to their ghastly fate.

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 Kirsty happens to catch sight of Julia meeting with strange men and spies on her, accidentally stumbling upon the unholy alliance. In the ensuing debacle, she manages to get her hands on the puzzle box, much to Frank’s horror. She unwittingly opens it, summoning the Cenobites. Pleading with them for her life when they declare their intent to take the one who called them, she makes a bargain to serve up Frank- the one soul who escaped them.

That’s the story. There’s a climactic conflagration (both figurative and literal) in the third act and things go to some dark places, but the remainder of the film basically sets up the eventual confrontation between Kirsty, Julia, Frank and the demons.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II arrived in theaters a year later. The sequel picks up mere hours after the final scene of the previous movie, with Kirsty under observation after the death of her father (and Julia) at the hands of Frank, whom the Cenobites have reclaimed for Hell.

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Taken into the care of renowned psychiatrist Dr. Channard (respected British actor Kenneth Cranham, who revealed later on he took the role because his grandson – a big fan of the original – urged him to do it),  Kirsty makes the acquaintance of another patient, a young, mute girl named Tiffany (Imogen Boorman, who does an admirable job of investing the character with a quiet intensity, considering she rarely speaks a word in the entire film).

Together, the two women discover Channard is researching the Lament Configuration, the proper name of the puzzle box from the original film used to open doors to the other side. Channard manages to resurrect Julia**, who – finding herself in a skinless state just like Frank-  makes the same deal with the doctor as Frank did with her. There’s one key difference this time, though: Rather than rewarding him with an explicitly sexual relationship, she promises to show the doctor all the wonders of Hell he’s keen to explore.

Realizing what Channard has done, Kirsty races to stop him and Julia. Along the way, she also finds herself contending again with the Cenobites, who recognize her after their defeat the last time. From there, the film takes things a step further, setting the final act in Hell itself.

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Clive Barker famously took on the writing and directing duties for the original Hellraiser because he was so dissatisfied with the previous attempts to adapt his work to film ( anyone who suffered through the miserable dumpster fire that was the movie Rawhead Rex should empathize). The gamble paid off, with Barker delivering a taut, well constructed story that winds its way to some gory, darkly imaginative places while spending a surprising amount of time putting the characters first. For a film that splashed blood on the walls the way the original did at the time, there’s an unusually heavy focus on the family dynamics at its core. 

Barker stepped back to an executive producer role for the second film, though he did come up with the screen story. Peter Atkins took over writing duties, turning in a screenplay that faithfully essays the Gothic chill of the first while extending onto a broader canvas. Tony Randel, who served as editor on the original, takes over as director for the second. He does a solid job, aided by a capable cast, many of whom carryover. 

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While I don’t think the character relationships are fleshed out quite as well in the immediate sequel (save for Julia and Channard. Clare Higgins yet again steps up as one of the MVP’s of the first two movies, establishing Julia as one of the great cinematic villains), I also don’t think Hellbound really called for it. As of Hellraiser II they’ve already established the cinematic rules and so the filmmakers just hit the ground running, which works in favor of the film. In the original, we were granted a glimpse through a doorway into a terrifying new dimension. In part II,  the story is about stepping through that doorway and exploring the sinister places to which it leads. 

Visually the films are both masterpieces, unique in their grim aesthetics. The make-up designs for the Cenobites are somehow simultaneously repellent and impossible to turn away from and the practical effects are wonderful. The sequence where Frank emerges from the floor and is partially restored to his physical form in the first movie is a hideous wonder to behold, even today. Equally impressive is the combination of prosthetics and stop motion animation used to realize the “reborn” Dr. Channard in the second half of the sequel. 

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The same can be said for the depiction of Hell in the second movie as a series of dark, dusty corridors in a labyrinth governed by a gigantic representation of the Lament Configuration. Having transformed itself into a diamond shape, this incarnation hovers above everything, a malevolent, swirling god named Leviathan, casting beams of soul shattering darkness across its domain. I’ve read criticisms of this visual direction in the years since which decry it as unimaginative, but I disagree. The idea was to evoke desolation and hopelessness, not pitchforks and horned devils. I think they absolutely nailed it. 

It also bears mentioning that Christopher Young delivers a score for both of these films that’s equal parts eerie and bombastic, adding an extra texture of atmosphere that really draws the viewer in. Young’s work here is some of the best I’ve heard in the genre. 

On a more personal note, I acknowledge that, in my time, I’ve written fewer words about Hellraiser than any other film franchise to date. If I’m being completely honest, that’s largely because I’ve always been intimidated by my respect toward the first two films in particular. I was never really certain I could properly encapsulate the impact they had on me. It took this long for me to really gather my thoughts into a cohesive whole.  

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While Wes Craven and John Carpenter remain my top two favorite horror directors  (in that order), what Clive Barker did with Hellraiser had a more tremendous impact on my trajectory as a horror fan (and, later in life, as a horror author)  than any other property outside of the original Halloween.

Sure, I’d been a horror fan for years by the time the original premiered in 1987 (which was why I was keen to see it in the first place). But Hellraiser opened up a whole new concept in storytelling for me. This was no possession story. It had nothing to do with slashers or the Antichrist or cannibals or killer animals. There were no zombies to be seen. For the first time, I was witnessing something truly original. Something literate. There were concepts and perspectives regarding the very perceptions of Heaven and Hell I had never considered, presented in all their bloody glory up on that screen. 

It was because of how absolutely blindsided I was by the power of Hellraiser that I decided to explore the written works of Clive Barker. This was a first for me. Plenty of movies have inspired me to seek out other films by the same director. This marked the first time a film pushed me to read books by an author who – up to that time – I recognized by name only. That, in turn, opened me up to reading other authors I hadn’t read, all of which eventually inspired me to try my hand at writing my own horror stories.

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Hellbound had a similar impact on the fandom side of things. And to explain that, it’s time I focus on one particular actor whose name has been conspicuously absent from this piece: Doug Bradley.

I had gotten into the habit of knowing who the actors behind horror characters were by 1987. I knew who Robert Englund was within a week of A Nightmare on Elm Street being released (“Hey, it’s Willie from V!” was the collective chorus) and I always made it a habit to stay through the end credits to see who played other screen monsters. Having a subscription to Fangoria at the time also helped a lot,  which is how I came to know names such as Nick Castle , Dick Warlock, CJ Graham, Kane Hodder and Kevin Peter Hall.

But what happened with Doug Bradley -particularly when Hellbound was released – was something different. This was an instance where not only did the actor behind the role deliver such a riveting, unforgettable performance as to inspire audiences to learn more about him, he provoked fans to adopt an unofficial name. People tend to forget in the current era that in the original Hellraiser, Bradley’s character is referred to in the credits as the “Lead Cenobite”. “Pinhead” was a sobriquet bestowed by the makeup fx crew on the first film. He wasn’t credited as such until the second film and, although Barker disliked the name, the fans ran with it. To be a part of that same fandom was an experience which carried more universal connectivity to other horror adherents than I’d previously experienced.

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Which dovetails nicely to the other revelatory moment part II provided. The film explores some of Pinhead’s past, providing a glimpse of when he was originally a human by the name of Elliot Spencer, shell shocked from his experiences in the British military. This sets up a key confrontation between Pinhead, his crew of Cenobites and the recently transformed Dr. Channard later in the film, resulting in a vicious on-screen battle. 

That sequence emerged as the hottest topic of debate among my fellow horror aficionados that year.  In the same manner Sci-Fi fans reportedly held discussions long into the night over what the film 2001:A Space Odyssey really meant back in 1969, so did the horror fans I knew spend hours in the late months of 1988 engaged in intelligent, enthusiastic debate regarding the outcome of that battle in Hellraiser II.  That was my first sense of what it felt like to belong to a larger community with a shared artistic passion. From that point on, I knew I was going to be involved in the horror genre in some way for the remainder of my days.

Putting aside the personal meaning the first two films hold for me, the core reason to love them is that they’re just flat out really, really, really good horror movies. Watched together, they spin a terrific, horrifying story that opens a door to a world audiences had never really experienced before. With a visual design brilliantly maximizing every nook and cranny of a low budget and featuring strong casting (including the then-rare horror villain who is as articulate and intelligent as he is terrifying) they’ve earned their reputation as classics. 

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Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II changed the game, both for me personally and in the larger sense of the horror genre. They demonstrated way back in the late 1980’s graphically violent, unrelentingly dark horror could not only be a mainstream success, but classy and elegant as well. 

Though for the most part the sequels (beginning with Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth) began a downward slide eventually landing the once-lauded franchise in DTV hell, the first two tell a satisfying, completely self-contained story horror fans can embrace all these years later. Even better, audiences will lose nothing if they choose not to continue past part II.

* Oliver Smith portrays skinless Frank and he is excellent. He also appears as a grotesque apparition writing “I am in Hell, help me” in blood on a wall early in the second film.

**Deborah Joel portrays skinless Julia.  She too is marvelous in her role.

This rating is almost too easy. ***** out of ***** for both Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II. These should be in every horror fan’s cinematic library.

D.S. Ullery

D.S. Ullery has published in various ezines and magazines, as well as the anthologies When Red Snow MeltsCreature Stew; Journals of Horror:Found Fiction; Wild Things: Thirteen tales of Therianthropy ; Paying the Ferryman and The Final Masquerade. Beyond Where the Sky Ends – the first collection of his horror fiction- was published in early 2016. A born and raised Floridian,  he lives with a black cat named Jason, who was born on Friday the 13th.

Spooky Reads!

“…easily in my top 5 best anthologies in the horror genre” -Tracy Crockett, Halloweenforevermore.com.

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