As a young child, I was fortunate enough to spend a fair amount of time with two middle-aged alcoholics possessed of an extremely liberal outlook on R-rated videotapes. I would spend weekends at their house regularly, and no trip was complete without a trip to the horror section of the local Blockbuster – valuable learning experiences, not because of the movies (most of which I fell asleep halfway through), but because of the many hours spent simply perusing VHS slip covers. It's my theory that horror films are so universally popular with little kids not just because we all, at that age, like to experiment with the scare button in our minds, but also because the illustrations on their packaging are so enticingly weird. Also, the genre's offerings fall into loose, easily identifiable (even for a middle-schooler) groups: slasher flicks, supernatural stories, stuff about space, and movies based on short stories by Stephen King.
Oh, and then there was the really extreme stuff, the stuff that dealt with the most taboo horror of all: sex. Hellraiser, in my young mind, was among the most notorious of these scandalous sagas. The image of Pinhead (played by Doug Bradley, and billed in the first film as “Lead Cenobite”), with his ghostly pale bald head stuffed full of thin metal spikes, was frightening enough. But the mere mention of Clive Barker above the title got my youthful mojo risin': I had read about ten pages of a Clive Barker book when I was ten and the main takeaway involved a character passionately masturbating and spilling “spunk” all over the floor.
Even now, approaching thirty, I'm pretty tantalized by Hellraiser's primary conceit: the existence of a mystical puzzle box that, when patiently coaxed open, releases four gruesome demonoids who extract so much incredible pain from their victims that, finally, it passes into the realm of horrible pleasure. Hellraiser depicts not once but TWICE the final result of one character's experience with Pinhead and his cohorts: his body being ripped apart by chains attached (in a really fake-looking establishing shot, used repeatedly throughout this film and its sequel, Hellbound) to his flesh with hooks.
Everything in the movie looks pretty fake, actually, and now that I'm old enough to watch Hellraiser with more than a few experiences of both the sexual and the painful variety in my rearview, I can see clearly that the effects are the main attraction here – the S&M elements are sprinkled somewhat liberally throughout this entry (and downplayed to a greater extent as the series progressed and the mythology increasingly centered around the Pinhead character) but suggestion is all they are, really.
The story is set in motion by Frank (Sean Chapman) purchasing and then solving the aforementioned puzzle box (to be known as the Lamont Configuration in future films), which leads to his sparsely furnished bedroom morphing into an elaborately appointed torture chamber complete with eerie gray light shining through cracks in the walls. After he becomes just so much rubbery splatter on the walls, the film shifts perspective to his somewhat square brother Larry (played, in a righteously satisfying tour de force of scenery chewing, by Dirty Harry bad guy Andrew Robinson) and his shady British wife Julia (Clare Higgins). After that, without getting too spoilery, things take a decidedly sinister turn, with the introduction of Larry's nubile-but-independent-minded daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) and Frank's resurrection as a revolting, blood-drenched half-man hungry for human flesh.
But, the effects: masterminded by Cliff Wallace (a guy with a resume as illustrious as it is long), they're pain-staking and gross, the kind of disgusting creations so sickening because of their obvious weight and mass – the kind of mind-blowingly awesome stuff that has, in the past decade, been almost completely replaced by cheap, shiny CGI, essentially unbelievable in the same way, but somehow easier to shrug off because no sick bastard actually went to the trouble of actually creating it with real materials. Hellraiser is an artifact of a bygone era when crafty backstage lifers toiling in dark and dingy makeshift laboratories made, in the truest sense of the word, the stuff of nightmares literal.
I miss those days, just like I miss those intoxicating weekends of my childhood lost to the likes of Sleepaway Camp II and endless cans of cold Dr Pepper: there is a sense of wonder to Hellraiser, a fundamental and unshakable awe that a lot of people got together and believed in a third-rate horror writer's kinky idea enough to build it from the ground up. And the end result is still scary shit, my friends – I recently watched it alone, with the lights off, and had to pause it three quarters of the way through to go find my cat and hug him close for comfort. Its theme of pain as the ultimate pathway to true pleasure will always vibrate seductively, a window into the dark part of the human soul that most of us will never be brave enough to inspect in the harsh light of day. For that, I'm willing to overlook some obvious latex errors.