Hellraiser: 20th Anniversary Edition (DVD)

“We have such sights to show you.”

Ahh, the horror icons of the ’80s. Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Charles Lee Ray, Horace Pinker, I love all those crazy guys. Included in this fright fraternity is the one and only Pinhead. He’s memorable mostly because of his visually striking appearance. While some of the other monsters might have scarred or gooey faces, Pinhead’s look is uniquely geometric. He wasn’t disfigured in some tragic accident or born with an ungodly defect of some kind. No, his gruesome appearance was planned—and that gives him an extra-special creep factor.

Has it really been 20 years since writer/director Clive Barker gave the world Hellraiser? I guess so, because here comes the 20th anniversary DVD. Is it pleasure or pain? Or is it…both?

Larry Cotton (Andrew Robinson, Dirty Harry) and his wife Julia (Claire Higgins, The Golden Compass) move into a new home, ready to start a new life after some marital difficulties. Larry doesn’t know it, but Julia once had a sordid affair with Larry’s brother, Frank, the troublemaker of the family. Julia still thinks about their time together, leaving her feeling unsatisfied in her current marriage. Surprisingly, Frank returns, in a form barely alive, having just escaped from a dark, otherworldly realm. He lurks about in the house’s empty attic, demanding that Julia bring him fresh blood so that he may return to human form. Kirsty (Ashley Laurence, Old Scratch), Frank’s daughter from a previous marriage, suspects something is up. She eventually learns that Frank’s return has to do with an antique puzzle box and a group of sadistic creatures called cenobites, led by one that movie fans everywhere would eventually come to know as “Pinhead” (Doug Bradley, The Killer Tongue).

Imagine a room with stark, dusty walls, in which the only light streams in through a filthy brown window. Slabs of rotting meat are pinned the wall, as are the still-twitching bodies of small animals. Black metal chains hang from the ceiling, clanging into each other as they swing through the air like foul wind chimes. A man barely stands in the center of the room, as rusty metal hooks at the end of the chains dig deep into his naked flesh, tearing at the blood and meat underneath. This is Clive Barker’s world, and it’s from this place that Hellraiser was born.

If you’ve never seen Hellraiser and you assume it’s a typical ’80s “slasher” movie, you’re in for a surprise. There are no air-headed teens getting their heads hacked off mere minutes after having sex, there are no scenes in which the killer chases a white-T-shirt-wearing girl through woods during a rainstorm, and there are no the-killer-you-thought-was-dead-jumps-out-at-you-one-last-time-for-a-cheap-scare gags. Although it does have its cheesy moments, Hellraiser is more of a “get inside your head and mess with you” kind of horror flick.

The tone of the movie is more like a haunted house story than a straightforward monster movie. There’s something very sinister hiding up in the attic, and it’s slowly driving the house’s residents out of their minds. Is it a cheat that Julia wants Frank so bad that she’s willing to go all homicidal on strangers just so he can someday touch her again? It’s true that her turn to villainy seems to happen at the drop of a hat, but think about how much we don’t know about these characters. We’re told that Julia and Larry had problems prior to moving to their new home, but it’s not specific as to what kind of problems. What if Julia’s violent streak is nothing new? Larry seems almost afraid of her at times, and Kirsty certainly keeps her distance from her stepmom. This is speculation on my part, sure, but the fact that the movie got me thinking about the characters and who they are as much as it did the scares and the gore says something about its quality.

But despite Julia’s enthusiasm for maiming and Pinhead’s out-there fashion sense, Frank’s really the one who is the bad guy. Blood brings him back to life, and he feasts on it—and more—in his attempt to transform from something slimy into something resembling an actual person. The scene in which Frank is “reborn” is the movie’s first major special-effects piece, and it’s a good one. We see his body reform out of nothingness, with blood, tissue, and bone all sealing itself together for the first time. It’s a gross-out, to be sure, but it’s a different kind of gross-out, because we’re seeing something being created instead of destroyed. As the movie progresses and Frank becomes more and more, uh, human, for lack of a better word, the makeup job on him is incredible. Frank really does look like a guy whose skin is missing, and he consistently looks all wet and glisten-ish. But in addition to his look, there’s a menace to the character that comes across as real. He’s in a desperate situation and he knows it. He’s not so much about having a sinister master plan, but instead he’s just staying one step ahead of everyone. This makes for an intense and unpredictable monster to drive the story.

Like a lot of Clive Barker’s work, sexuality is all over the map in Hellraiser. Julia leaves Larry frustrated at one point in the movie, and he bemoans not knowing what she wants. Compare this to the cenobites, who we’re told come from a place in which physical pleasure and physical torment are one in the same. And what would Dr. Freud say about Kirsty walking down a long, dark hallway only to find a fanged beast lurking at the end of it?

A little more subtle is the use of religion and spirituality in the film. When Larry and Julia first move into the house, there is Christian iconography everywhere. Later, when Kirsty visits, she sees all the crucifixes and other Christ-representing objects left outside on the corner, like trash. Naturally, it’s after this that all hell breaks loose inside. And then there’s Frank’s ambiguous final line, allegedly an ad lib during filming, which seems to take a classic Christian image and reverse it, making into something not uplifting and life-affirming, but something painful and torturous. Compare this, again, to the behavior of the cenobites. Pinhead describes him and his pals as “Demons to some. Angels to others.” The cenobites don’t see themselves as good or evil; they’re just doing their thing. The human characters see things in terms of good and evil, while the otherworldly cenobites only view life in terms of “experience,” without necessarily assigning a morality to it.

Where does this story take place? And when? New York City and, more specifically, Brooklyn are both mentioned, but there are a lot of British accents to be heard. There’s no mistaking the ’80s-era hair and clothes, and yet scenes in a hospital look like they’re set in the 1950s. Two brief scenes offer a glimpse of a foreign marketplace that looks like it could have been in an Indiana Jones-style 1930s adventure. One scene outdoors takes place in a burning industrial landscape identified in the script only as “The Wasteland.” This mish-mash of eras and locations gives the movie a timeless feel, intentional or not, and this heightens the stranger fantasy aspects of the story.

The picture and audio quality on this disc are serviceable, but not overwhelmingly excellent. There are no specific flaws, but there is a lack of the “wow!” factor you get from the best DVD transfers. A number of bonus features on this disc are brought over from a previous disc, which is why there’s mention of the 15th anniversary on this 20th anniversary edition. Still, the commentary is a good one, with Ashley Laurence every bit as nice and friendly as you’d expect her to be, and Clive Barker being every bit as cool-but-weird as you’d expect him to be (at one point, he refers to the movie as, “a domestic comedy”). The “Resurrection” featurette covers the entirety of the film’s production, as Barker, Laurence, Bradley, and many others discuss their participation in the film. What’s new are some longer interviews with Laurence, Bradley, Andrew Robinson, and composer Christopher Young (Ghost Rider). Robinson discusses not just Hellraiser but his career-making turn in Dirty Harry as well, Laurence throws some improv comedy into her interview, Bradley philosophizes about the moral ambiguity of the character, and Young shares his thoughts on both this film and the sequel. There are several original trailers and TV spots for the film, and a large collection of still galleries to look through. Finally, you can get some use from your DVD-ROM drive for once and check out both the screenplay and the first draft screenplay, straight from Clive Barker’s mind onto your screen.

If you’ve never seen Hellraiser, you owe it to yourself to check it out at least once, just for the experience. If you’re a fan, know that only some of the bonus features here are new. If you’re a fan who doesn’t already own the movie, this is the one to get.

The Verdict

(Editor’s note: Appellate Judge Mac McEntire was about to render a “not guilty” verdict, but then he transformed into the newest cenobite, “Gavelhead,” and promptly disappeared into another dimension.)

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