When Stephen King called then unknown Clive Barker the future of horror, it was an endorsement that turned many a genre fan's cynical head. After all, if the reigning monarch of the macabre thought that this English newcomer was the savior of the medium he helped to popularize, there must have been something to such publicized posturing. Leafing through the young writer's Books of Blood, however, didn't leave many with the same overriding impression. Indeed, Barker frequently came across like H.P. Lovecraft without an internal monologue, and his stories often substituting lashings of gore for anything remotely resembling suspense. In some ways, he was the first crossbreed cyberpunk terror scribe, using the Gothic instead of the technical as fuel for his foul dreams. No, it would take a film to confirm Barker's reputation - and what a film it was/is. Hellraiser may not make a lick of logical sense, or spell out its ideas in huge, embraceable shapes, but in its own insidious way, it illustrated its inherent and undeniable brilliance. That's why it has remained one of the greatest horror films of the last 20 years - even of all time.
Hoping to rekindle his dying marriage, American Larry Cotton brings his frigid British wife Julia back to the UK. Along for the move is independent daughter Kirsty. She's wary of her stepmother and protective of her doormat papa. They decide to take up residence in the old Cotton family abode, and it's clear from the evidence that black sheep brother Frank has been squatting there for several months. This saddens Larry...and enlivens Julia. She had an affair with the sleazy sibling years before, and the thought of his animalist presence brings out long hidden thoughts of sex and seduction. When Larry is injured, bleeding profusely onto the rickety attic floor, he inadvertently resurrects Frank from beyond the grave. Apparently, the pain loving playboy bought a strange puzzle box - the Lament Configuration - while abroad, and in solving it, he summoned the Cenobites, demons who feed on human suffering. They tore him limb from limb. Now, he wants Julia to help him come back to life by bringing potential victims to his lair. There, she will kill them and he will drink their blood. Ultimately, he plans on taking Larry out of the picture as well. Of course, once Kirsty discovers the plot, she will do anything to save her father - including making a deal with these erotic devils.
No matter what Clive Barker thinks (at least circa the year 2000), Hellraiser remains a modern horror classic. It speaks a spook show language all its own, and does something that few fright film are capable of - it reinvents the genre while staying true to the tenets that made said movies important in the first place. Call it a fetishized Frankenstein, a post-modern Prometheus with a perverted, adulterous bent, or Satan's private S&M screed, but there is no denying the film's power. In a situation (cinematically) that constantly overreaches without every achieving its goal, Barker basically damns the torpedoes and embraces the glories of going full bore gonzo. Sure, some of the monster effects are sloppy by 2007 CGI slickness standards, and the origins of the Cenobites (supernatural explorers of the evil and enticing?) can still mandate a massive suspension of one's disbelief. But because of the novelty in the first time filmmaker's approach, because of the underling themes that help to fill in the necessary nuances and blanks, Hellraiser rises and remains at the top. Instead of feeling derivative and dated, a one time innovation that has long since been mimicked into irrelevance, what we have here remains fully aware of its era, and awfully ahead of its time.
One of the things that turns a horror film into a confirmed classic is a connection to recognizable reality. After all, a possessed teenager spewing pea soup and masturbating with a crucifix may seem shockingly otherworldly, but when told within a clear cut context of parent/child confusion, adolescent growing pains, the onset of puberty, and the then popularized generation gap, the atrocities in a film like The Exorcist become an incredibly potent allegory. It's the same with Hellraiser. In essence, Barker is delivering every cuckold's worst nightmare. In his slightly psychotic vision, weak men better watch out - their sexually frustrated wives will kill people to feed a reanimated corpse with flesh-free copulation on its mind. Indeed, the main emblematic elements here are Frank and Julia's unholy trysts. The first occurs during the post-wedding celebration. The next happens right under hubby's blind bat suburban stodginess. While he's mindless watching boxing, or calming his daughter's concerns, his spouse is in the attic, feeding bodies to a horny troll whose out to destroy his life - literally. The notion of illustrating how far adultery can be taken, as well as the notion that said paramours won't be happy until they've stripped the victim of their dignity...and skin, is one of Hellraiser's most potent elements. It turns a standard splatter film into something much deeper.
Then, there is the standard Barker subtext of innocence violated - in this case, the caustic coming of age for budding daughter Kirsty. Sitting precariously on the border between unready and ripe, seeking independence while clinging to absent apron strings, our unlikely heroine becomes the center of some unrivaled dread. Ashley Laurence gives an amazing performance in the movie, moderating between clueless and courageous, smart and scared shitless. Her confrontations with the Cenobites (so inventive they require their own review to discuss) are expertly handled and highly memorable. And since she exudes a kind of untainted virtue, it makes the meeting with undead Frank all the more disturbing. With Clare Higgins and Andrew Robinson rounding out the first rate cast, and Doug Bradley's iconic turn as lead demon Pinhead, Hellraiser harkens back to a time when ideas plus ick created masterful macabre. Sure, it's low to no budget leanings meant that Barker and crew had to cut a lot of corners, and as a novice behind the lens, our director can be forgiven for some not so subtle self-indulgence. But with most of the movies from the era revolving around quipping killers and the standard slice and dice, Hellraiser rests on its unusual and intense laurels - and we respond accordingly.
Previous DVD editions of this frequently marginalized movie cannot compare to the job Anchor Bay does this time around. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks marvelous, bright and colorful with lots of defining details. The biggest improvement comes with Kirsty's first encounter with the Cenobites in her hospital room. Where previous versions practically whited-out over the intense lighting and exposure Barker employed, the new transfer is just terrific. It's still stunning, but in a much more manageable way.
Given both a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround reboot and a standard 2.0 stereo mix, Hellraiser has never sounded better, either. Christopher Young's amazing score, which resembles the sound of the Antichrist's cathedral weeping, is just fantastic, and the dialogue is readily discernible. About the only downside to this otherwise excellent remaster is the exposure of the film's infrequent technical glitches. One occasionally experiences a flat or tinny quality in the sound effects provided via the unforgiving digital medium.
The added content is a mixture, a combination of ported over bonuses from previous releases with three new featurettes created exclusively for this 20th Anniversary DVD. Of the original content, we are treated to an interview with Andrew Robinson ("Mr. Cotton, I Presume?") which offers a great deal of personal insight. Then there is "Actress from Hell", which sees Ms. Laurence discuss the impact the film had on her life and career. Finally, "Helicomposer" allows Young a chance to defend his superb sonic choices. All three Q&As are delightful, and help define the place Hellraiser holds in the hearts of those who made it. There is also something called "Under the Skin - Doug Bradley on Hellraiser" that's not exactly new. It is, however, making its first home video appearance. Everything else is carried over from something else, including an informative behind the scenes documentary ("Hellraiser: Resurrection") and a collection of TV spots, storyboard galleries, still galleries, and DVD-rom screenplays. Perhaps the best left over extra is the full length audio commentary by Barker, Laurence, and moderator Peter Atkins. Recorded in 2000, it is here where we learn of Barker's disdain for the film, Laurence's love of the onset experience, and the nods to other filmmakers (Argento, Fulci) that the director deliberately paid homage to. While not quite as comprehensive as one would hope (both Clare Higgins and Sean "Frank" Chapman are absent), it's still a wonderful wealth of contextual connections.
Thanks to its frightmare eccentricities, lack of ready home theater availability, and a souring via sequels (there have been seven...and counting), Hellraiser has lost some of its legacy and luster over the years. Yet revisiting it outside all the horror geek hullabaloo reveals a certified macabre classic. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, it's a film that stands the test of time by constantly beating the continuum at its own reconfigured relevancy. This latest DVD incarnation offers a stellar image, a wonderful sound package, and some priceless moments of bonus feature perception. Sadly, it could all be overshadowed by a proposed remake that is in the works. After two decades of struggle, it seems a shame that the original will be pushed aside by some sloppy, CGI-oriented 'reimagining'. Barker may have been hindered by financial and artistic shortcomings, but the results definitely speak for themselves. Hellraiser is a post-modern masterpiece. It will definitely tear you scary movie soul apart.
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