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With the still ongoing Hellraiser franchise, what we get is basically BDSM from hell. The fans look for extreme gore and body horror, coupled with gothic and nightmare logic depictions of various hellscapes. They're of course supported heavily by the iconic cenobytes, led by the equally iconic Pinhead (Doug Bradley), who are priests of infernal pleasure derived from endless agony, draped in tight fetish gear and looking like the results of an X-rated Jim Henson-H. P. Lovecraft co-production. The bloody meat and potatoes of the franchise relies heavily on how far the graphic violence can be pushed as a result of creative torture devices from hell and schlocky but effective creature designs. As far as a strict demand and supply situation goes, gorehound fans get the extreme tone that they're looking for, with nuisances like story or intriguing characters used only as shoestring plot points to tie a bunch of gory set pieces together.
There's nothing wrong with that of course, as long as the franchise offers the same old stuff for the fans, but for those looking for a bit more depth in their horror, the style over substance approach might become a bit tiring. For the newcomer audience, writer/director Clive Barker's first Hellraiser would be the one to check out, since apart from the expected blood and guts, it also relies heavily on a suspenseful Alfred Hitchcock Presents style serial murder story for much of the runtime, with a heavier emphasis on character development. Barker based his directorial debut on his novella, The Hellbound Heart, and secured a budget of less than a million dollars, which isn't much for an ambitious horror flick full of imaginative sets and over-the-top practical effects.
It's perhaps due to the budgetary restraints that Barker spends the first two acts primarily focused on the intimate and twisted murder tale, where a certified scumbag named Frank (Sean Chapman) comes back from hell after messing around with the cenobytes. Yet he's only a walking and talking lump of bloody flesh, so he needs the help of his ex-lover Julia (Clare Higgins) to lure in victims with the promise of casual sex, so Frank can suck out their lifeblood and gradually put some meat (and skin) on his bones. This art through adversity approach that dials down the more out there hellish imagery and extreme gore works in the film's favor, as Barker gradually builds suspense through this messed up zombie/undead romance.
When the crap truly hits the fan and the third act is draped with some crimson goodness and bizarre creature designs, thanks primarily to Pinhead and his co-horts (The woman with the exposed vagina-neck being my favorite), Barker mostly delivers what the audience is craving for, and it comes right on time as far as the structural pacing is concerned. Hellraiser is far from a perfect horror flick, I'd even barely call it an ‘80s genre classic. Barker himself admits that he suffered from a lack of experience while directing the film, leading to a product chock full of awkward framing and off-balance acting.
Arrow's 1080p transfer perfectly captures the dark and glum look of the film, with a heavy emphasis on film grain and stark contrast to capture that ‘80s low-budget horror feel. That being said, the clarity of the transfer ends up a bit detrimental to the film's suspension of disbelief, since it makes it easier to see some obvious design details in gore make-up and optical effects.
Christopher Young's operatic score truly comes to life with the lossless original 2.0 track on offer here. Even though a DTS-HD 5.1 mix is also on offer, which provides more ambiance when it comes to hellish set-pieces, I'd still go with the 2.0 offering, since the dynamic range and the bombastic quality of the music gels most effectively here.
Audio Commentary with Clive Barker: With his trademark raspy voice, Barker goes over the many details of the production in this fairly informative and well-prepared commentary.
Audio Commentary with Clive Barker and Ashley Laurence: For those looking for a more conversational and loose audio companion to the film, check out this commentary instead. Barker and Laurence, who becomes the film's final girl during the third act, reminisce about the many challenges and joys of the low-budget production.
Leviathan: This is an absolute treat, an all-encompassing 90-minute making-of documentary about the production, with in-depth interviews with the cast and crew.
Being Frank: Sean Chapman talks about playing the film's villain.
Soundtrack Hell: The original score for Hellraiser was from the band Coil, until it was excised by the producers. Band member Stephen Thrower talks about the experience of scoring the film and then finding out the score won't be used.
Hellraiser Resurrection: A making-of featurette ported over from previous home video releases. Watch the 90-minute doc instead.
Under The Skin: In this vintage interview, Doug Bradley talks about playing Pinhead for the first time.
Original EPK: The EPK made during the production. For fans of vintage featurettes only.
We also get Trailers and TV Spots.
As an 80s horror fan, I don't consider the Hellraiser franchise to be a cornerstone of the era. As each episode is released, the experience begins to feel more and more one note. But with a heavier emphasis on character development and execution of some intriguing themes, the first Hellraiser is still the best example of its premise.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com