Clive Barker has a sick little mind. There’s no other explanation. His idea of a dimension of pure pleasure becomes twisted into a place of unending pain, and thus are birthed the Cenobites, cinema’s most inventive sadomasochistic villains.
Hellraiser, from 1987, was written and directed by Barker, adapting his own novella, The Hellbound Heart. In the beginning, we see Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) buying a mysterious puzzle box from a merchant in Morocco. He takes the box home, and when he solves the puzzle, a dimensional portal is opened. Appearing from within are the Cenobites — four leather-clad, tortured, and disfigured corpse-like creatures who rule a realm of pleasure and pain. The box and the legend it contains are a temptation to mankind, and all those who seek it out find themselves trapped and tortured for all eternity. Is the box a portal to hell? It doesn’t matter. For their part, the Cenobites describe themselves as “explorers in the further regions of experience; demons to some, angels to others.”
When they first appear, the Cenobites become instant icons of horror. Their gruesome visages are now an indelible presence in the genre. It’s surprising, then, to find that they are peripheral characters in the film, a threat hovering over all proceedings, but mostly unseen. The Cenobites dispatch Frank early on, then disappear until the start of the final act. In between, the story focuses on Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson), Larry’s wife Julia (Clare Higgins), and Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence).
Larry and Julia move in to the disused home that Frank was occupying when he summoned the Cenobites. Frank is gone from there, taken back into the ether with the Cenobites, but some of him still remains. A household accident leads to some blood being spilled on the floorboards in the attic, and this blood fuels Frank’s gruesome resurrection. He rises, not wholly flesh, and is discovered by Julia. She, unbeknownst to Larry, has a history with Frank, and is willing to do anything Frank needs to become human once more. This means that when the opportunity presents itself, Julia hits up the single bars and brings men back to the house on whom Frank can feed. Over time, his body becomes more and more substantial. It’s a process that is hard to watch.
In fact, most of the gore in this film is hard to stomach. Besides Frank’s restoration, there’s the matter of the Cenobites. Those creatures are artists of torture. As such, a viewer is treated to hooks piercing flesh, skin being ripped from muscle, dismembered body parts, etc. In the past in this space, I have lamented the rise of torture porn in the horror industry. Saw, and films of the like, feature grievous injury that, for me, is too graphic for my enjoyment. What makes Hellraiser’s use of violence and gore acceptable by comparison? I think it’s because the gore has a purpose in Hellraiser. Torture porn is an apt description of what goes on in those types of films. The violence exists to shock and nothing more. But, as the Cenobites themselves contend, they are explorers of experience. I don’t think it would take long for eternal beings to exhaust normal earthly experiences of pleasure and pain, leaving only the extremes left to satisfy their desires. The graphic nature of the gore in Hellraiser is necessary, then, to convey this message.
Hellraiser turns out to be a bit of a morality play. Frank is a creature who is slave to his sensations. In seeking out the ultimate pleasure, he finds it paired with ultimate pain. The lesson, as always, is to be careful what one wishes for.
Pleasure and pain, despite the differing surface characteristics, are two inseparable aspects of human experience. When heights are reached, both demand full attention. Both are exhilarating, for good and bad reasons. Both are pathways to the animalistic side of human behavior. Reason flees in the face of both. When Clive Barker imagined the Cenobites, whether it was his intention or not, he birthed demons whose promises, no matter how extreme, have some appeal.
Compared to other horror films, Hellraiser is a bit of a slow burn, especially if a viewer tunes in to see the Cenobites. But this is only because Clive Barker understands pace and storytelling. There are some wasted moments here and there involving Kirsty’s character development, but overall the film maintains tautness throughout. Frank knows it is only a matter of time before the Cenobites find him, so there is urgency in his efforts. As viewers, we both want and dread the arrival of the Cenobites. Frank is a horrible person who deserves to be punished…but not like that. Most horror films stick to scaring their audience, but Hellraiser also has an inescapable feeling of dread. We know what’s going to happen, and with every frame that ticks by it gets closer and closer. Scaring someone is easy. Making them sink into their seat with dread takes real skill.
Hellraiser is a classic of horror cinema whose ideas stay with a viewer after the credits have rolled. No experience of horror cinema is complete without watching this movie. It’s worth braving the gore.
Of final note is the film’s score. Christopher Young composed the score, and it’s hauntingly beautiful. Like all the best scores in film history, it stands on its own as a work of music, but is also indispensable when paired with its film.