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Image / 93 Minutes / 1987 / Rated R / Street Date: September 6, 2011
I was raised on a steady diet of horror fiction — from Edgar Allan Poe to H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King. While they all had a certain talent for creeping me out in different ways, the one relentless horror writer who really got under my skin — quite literally at times — was Clive Barker. There was something oddly compelling and yet deeply disturbing about his knack for introducing such twisted and macabre situations into seemingly mundane, ordinary life. Unlike other horror writers who often dabbled in flights of fantasy wherein the things to fear were either monsters or some other unknown entity outside the safe confines of home, Barker often focused on the horror within … where nothing seemed to be off limits and nothing was too taboo to tackle. Like filmmaker David Cronenberg, Barker was more about the visceral and the viscera … but not simply to gross people out for the repulsion factor. Barker was keenly interested in tapping into the darkness inside the human soul — the sick and deviant inclinations we all harbor but manage to keep well-hidden from polite society.
I can remember buying Barker’s first volume of his masterful Books of Blood stories back in 1984 simply based on Stephen King’s cover blurb alone which has stuck in my mind to this day: “I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker.” You couldn’t ask for a better endorsement and I’m sure Barker owes King an eternal debt for essentially jump-starting his career with that one line. It didn’t take long for Barker’s name to appear on subsequent collections and novels and, like King, his name became so well-known that he would soon find himself behind the camera directing his feature film debut with 1987’s Hellraiser, based on his own short novel The Hellbound Heart released the previous year. Like many of the chilling tales in the Books of Blood anthologies, Hellraiser was a wild amalgam of demons, sadomasochistic torture, graphic violence and otherworldly dimensions with an undercurrent of sexual tension thrown in for good measure. Barker’s unbridled European sensibilities were unlike anything horror fans had seen before — certainly a lot more subversive and radical than Stephen King’s sanitized version of Americana. In fact, Barker was to King the way the more graphic and sexy Hammer Horror Films of the 1970s were to the decidedly tame and homogenized Universal Monsters of the 1940s and 1950s.
Although it looks a bit dated today, there is still much to admire in Barker’s first foray into feature film directing. Taking his cue and inspiration from fellow auteur David Cronenberg, Barker created a pastiche of repulsive horror that ripped at the fabric of an already-disintegrating family. The film opens in North Africa where a man named Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) is haggling with a dealer over an intricate puzzle box. After purchasing the box, we next see him attempting to figure out a way to tap into its secrets, like some mystical Rubik’s cube. Touching the seemingly random patterns on its surface, Frank does eventually figure out the puzzle as hooks dangling from chains emerge to tear into his flesh. The puzzle box is both a key to open a portal into another dimension and also a way to summon a group of demonic entities known as the Cenobites. They soon appear after Frank is rendered into pieces and the group’s leader — who will become known as “Pinhead” in subsequent sequels — retraces the pattern on the puzzle box, closing it back to its original condition. Unbeknownst to the Cenobites and the audience is the fact that Frank had been hiding out in his former parents’ home in England … a house that is about to be renovated and occupied by his brother, Larry Cotton (Andrew Robinson).
Larry and his second wife Julia (Clare Higgins) soon arrive to check out the old homestead. The couple obviously had some marital problems in New York and has decided to move back to England. Larry is hoping the change in location will make things right between them, but already Julia is annoyed with the dilapidated old house filled with religious artifacts. Upon arriving, Larry and Julia realize that Frank had been staying there at some point — they find a sleeping bag on the floor of an attic room and rotting food and leftovers in the kitchen. Given his penchant for trouble, Larry assumes he’s off on another adventure or somewhere in prison. Meanwhile, Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) makes a deliberate decision not to move in with her father and stepmother. She arrives in England and checks into a nearby hotel, much to her father’s chagrin. After a busy day moving furniture into the new house, Larry accidentally slices his hand open on a nail while going up the stairs and bleeds all over the floor in the room where Frank was staying. Julia and Kirsty rush Larry off to the hospital to get stitches. As they leave, the drops of Larry’s blood begin to seep into the floorboards and coagulate into a primordial substance that begins taking shape. The shape is soon revealed to be the reanimated corpse of the now-deceased Frank … only he’ll require more flesh and blood to make himself whole again.
Through flashbacks we learn that Julia and Frank once had an affair — just before she married Larry — and she promised to do anything for Frank to keep things hidden from Larry. When she returns home from the hospital and discovers the partially-regenerated Frank lurking in the attic shadows, she’s initially repulsed … then, morbidly drawn to the idea of bringing him back into living flesh. Since he can’t leave the house, Frank convinces Julia to help him by bringing men back to the house under the guise of seducing them so he can nourish himself back to full human form by draining them of their life blood. Frank explains to Julia how the puzzle box was a way to gain both pain and pleasure and the Cenobites took his life and soul as part of the deal. Now that he’s escaped them by coming back to life, he has reneged on the deal. As such, he needs to fully restore himself so he can escape before they find him. Kirsty, meanwhile, remains aloof and suspicious of everything Julia does and she catches her bringing a strange man home one day to hand over to Frank. Thinking that Julia is cheating on her father with him, she follows them inside and is horrified to find the nearly dead man stumble out of the attic with the skinless and skeletal-like Frank trailing behind him. Recognizing her, “Uncle Frank” attempts to lure her in, but Kirsty manages to grab the mysterious puzzle box that Frank holds so dear and escapes from the house with it. When Kirsty awakens later in the hospital, she thinks it was all a bad dream … until one of the doctors presents her with the odd little puzzle box, asking her if she can identify it.
Obsessed with the little cube, Kirsty eventually solves the puzzle and opens its horrible secret — thereby unleashing the Cenobites who pay a visit to her in her hospital room. Just as they are about to give Kirsty the same grisly mix of pain and pleasure they gave to Frank, she realizes he has outwitted them and they might want to get even. She tells them she knows about Frank and where he can be found. They agree to let her live, for now, if she can bring them to Frank. Kirsty needs to get around Julia so that she can trick Frank into revealing himself to the Cenobites. But she first needs to make sure her father is safe. Arriving at his house, Kirsty finds her father safe and sound — albeit a bit shaken. He explains to her that he found out about Frank and both he and Julia killed him and left his body in the attic. But when Kirsty ascends the stairs and finds the mutilated and ravaged body to turn over to the Cenobites, they’re not too happy about claiming their long-lost “friend.” Fearing for her own life and that of her father’s, it’s ultimately up to Kirsty to fend off the Cenobites before they do further damage to her and her family. Realizing that the puzzle box is both the key to summoning them and sending them back, Kirsty needs to find a way to reverse all the evil that Frank has loosened on their family. In a big, gory showdown Kirsty manages to finally rid herself of the Cenobites while giving them what they want — Frank in the flesh.