In my quest to watch all the “necessary” iconic horrors, I always seemed to give the cold shoulder to Hellraiser. I can’t say exactly why, as I’ve always known very little about it. Maybe Pinhead just never intrigued me as a terrifying figure of horror, the way Michael Myers and others have in the past. Nevertheless, my viewing of the film only further perplexes me on how this is widely regarded one of the best of the 80s. Where are all the awesome bits that so many have insisted upon? Did I even watch the right film?
Well, perhaps I am being a bit harsh on it. At the very least, I’m pleased with the level and quality of gore here. Considering that The Evil Dead and Cannibal Holocaust make my personal list for some of the greatest horrors of all time, I am not at all adverse to a bit of the ol’ blood and guts. I think the violence in this film is used to decent effect, adding to the already unsettling atmosphere given by the content of the narrative. Moreover, Clive Barker shows off his directing chops pretty well in how creatively a lot of the pieces were put together. Sean Chapman as Frank Cotton does a particularly good job, and despite my initial juvenile impressions, Doug Bradley makes for a rather unsettling Pinhead, leader of the just-as-gruesome Cenobites. There’s a lot of interesting stuff at play here and I admire the creative imagination of Barker in devising many of these concepts and figures.
So there’s definitely a lot of good elements at play here. And yet… it doesn’t seem to add up quite so gracefully. Despite the fact that the plot incorporates its monsters, gore, and even sadomasochistic aspects in quite effective ways, the end product feels unusually lackluster in personality. Much of its aesthetic is flat and dull, and besides its eye-popping surplus of blood, Hellraiser is unfortunately rather play-by-numbers. Sure it’s well-paced, but in this case this may have been to its disadvantage. Its predictability isn’t helped at all by its conventional narrative arc, and besides the few performances noted above, much of the acting is, frankly, pretty boring. Since much of the narrative directly centers around its gore and supernatural elements, the characters we’re given aren’t very fleshed-out; as a result, it’s hard to sympathize with whatever nasty happenings they tend to encounter. As always, there are few things more tragic with a movie that does everything correctly, yet misses some inexplicable secret ingredient to help it go above and beyond.
With all this being said, I could imagine Hellraiser being pretty disturbing for those who aren’t quite so seasoned with the horror genre. Once again, the writing isn’t necessarily the weak point here – it’s clear that Barker is a visionary and knows where his intentions lie in this picture. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like such intentions are translated as elegantly as we hoped. While I couldn’t honestly say that I hated this film (how could I when, despite the clumsy final product, there are just so many individual elements to admire?), I am in no immediate rush to watch any of the sequels.