Roger Ebert hated Hellraiser when it came out, giving it half a star. He starts with the money quote Stephen King gave the director/writer on his literary debut: "I have seen the future of horror, and it is Clive Barker." Ebert quips: "Maybe Stephen King was thinking of a different Clive Barker."
Cute, but it ignores the strengths that Barker was bringing to the horror game, which in the mid-'80s literary world was becoming big business. First, Clive wrote with style. There are decent stylists in the horror world at the time (Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell) but there was a lot of turgid nonsense as well. Second, Clive Barker understood and exploited the connection between sexuality and death, and made it not the subtext of his works but the text, brought to the forefront. Third, he had a sense of the bizarre that made the reader never entirely sure what the hell was going to happen.
These sensibilities suffuse Hellraiser with a sense of freshness that made it at the time feel startling to the avid horror filmgoer. The basic story is pretty standard horror stuff: an old house is haunted by someone who once lived there, who ensorcelles an occupant to do their bidding. But the inhabitant is not a ghost, but Frank, a bizarre undead flesh golem who needs new tissues to reconstitute his jellied body. The occupant is his brother's wife, Julia, also Frank's secret lover, who is willing to kill for him to bring him the raw materials he needs to recreate his existence.
And the source of his demise wasn't corporeal, or heavenly. It was an alternate cosmology, a sado-masochistic priesthood of pleasure and pain that he sought when vanilla BDSM wasn't getting him as far as he wanted to go. This wasn't horny teenagers killed by a prudish hockey-masked revenant. It was a more adult sense of possession, and sexuality, and passion.
Unfortunately, it was also Clive Barker's first time at bat as a feature filmmaker, and it looks and feels like it. The acting is broad. The non-horror elements are a little creaky. Both the structure and pace of the film are a little up in the air. It is upfront about the horrific elements, and so there's not nearly as much mystery as there perhaps should be in this type of story. The opening sequence involves Frank (Sean Chapman) buying a puzzle box from an ancient Chinese mystic. He solves it, then a bunch of freaky weirdos appear in his attic and rip him to pieces.
Next scene, his brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) is moving back into that self-same house with his second wife, Julia (Claire Higgins), who has nothing but second thoughts about their marriage. Larry, the husband, is a stalwart companion who loves his wife, and wishes she loved him back. They're making a new go of it in London, where Julia is from, and Larry wants his daughter Kristy (Ashley Laurence) to come and live with them despite Kristy and Julia frankly hating each other.
Julia is also pining for her lost love affair with Frank, who basically banged her the second he saw her (just after the wedding day) and whose bad boy insouciance she can't forget. After a freak accident causes Larry's blood to spill on to the attic floor, Frank (whose corpse parts are under the floorboards, conveniently) sucks it up and begins to reconstitute his body.
This reconstitution is the special effect triumph of the film, and one of the main reasons to watch it, because it contains one of the main enticements of the horror film in general: it will show you something you have not seen before. And before watching Hellraiser, it is unlikely someone has seen bones reknitting themselves from raw matter, a brain unmelting itself into existence, and all of these constituent parts knitting themselves together as Frank, in as graphic and horrifying a manner as possible, recreates himself from the base matter that he has access to.
It's an alarming and exciting bit of horror grotesquery, and even if us modern sophisticated viewers can see the seams - the reverse footage, the obvious plastic bag for an empty heart, whatever, the totality of this gruesome visage is indeed visionary. All the subsequent scenes with Frank are the most memorable in the film. He is in various states of re-dress, first a mass of bones and lymph, then blood, then muscles. It's an arresting image, and the sensuality of the character still comes through - even though he'll leave gory traces of himself all over her, he still wants to touch Julia every time she comes by.
The story of the film plays out as Julia goes deeper into her obsession with Frank, supplying him with victims to feed his need for materials, while Larry feels her falling farther from him. He hopes somehow that Kristy can connect the chasm... but Frank has his own designs on his own family members.
And the hidden threat above all of the action is the Cenobites, called forth by the magic puzzle box called the Lament Configuration. It is a mystical device that opens doors to strange other worlds. One of these worlds contains the Cenobites (a Middle English word for "monk") who operate on the principal that the greatest pleasure comes from the succession of pain. So they rip people apart, and when they stop that glorious instant is the best feeling ever. Short-lived, but satisfying.
That's part of the theme of the movie - passion for a fleeting moment versus any sort of sustainable normality. And some of it plays out beautifully. Some disgustingly. All memorable.
But there's enough awkwardness and stiltedness that it is difficult to bestow classic status on this film. Some of that is the filmmaker's fault: some scenes are barely dressed, and don't appear to be set in any clear place. There's repetition in the film's structure, and it is handled repetitiously. Aspects of the characters are hinted at, but without enough clarity, or interest, to really flesh them out.
Some things that are odd with the film might be the result of studio meddling. Once it was decided that the picture might play in the states, nearly all the bit-players were redubbed by Americans, with substandard results. That the dialogue and the filming and even the looks of the place make it clear the story takes place in London, it's never explicit enough to make it Not America... kind of. It's a sloppy paint job of American accents over a bunch of Brits, and it cuts down on the integrity the story works hard to build.
But if a horror movie can deliver the horror parts, all the other movie machinery around them don't matter as much. And Hellraiser has these in spades. The Cenobites. The creepy torture room that is apparently their home. The recreation of a human face from torn scraps. Frank's various transformations. Kristy's encounter with the two-headed, gigantic monstrosity The Engineer, before she manages to get the attention of the Cenobites. Whatever might not be perfect in this trip to Hell, it gets the feel of horror right. It shows us things we haven't seen before.
Hellraiser has been released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video, and they've come up with a jam-packed disc of extras. The most extensive is the documentary, Leviathan: The Story of Hellraiser, at almost 90 minutes long. It's a talking head style retrospective that is excerpted from a larger fan-made and Kickstarter funded Hellraiser documentary. Unfortunately, Clive Barker (who is apparently sick of talking about Hellraiser) does not appear. He does appear on two commentary tracks, one solo and one with actress Ashley Laurence. Both commentaries have appeared on previous releases of the film on DVD. There are several more video extras: "Being Frank: Sean Chapman on Hellraiser" (27 mins), "Soundtrack Hell" where a former member of British electronic band Coil discusses the original, discarded soundtrack they wrote for the film, "Under the Skin: Doug Bradley on Hellraiser" (13 mins), "Hellraiser: Resurrection" (25 mins) which is a short archival featurette with interviews about the production. Also included are some archival EPK pieces, trailers, TV spots, and an image gallery.