In 1987, writer/director Clive Barker burst onto the scene with Hellraiser, a deeply disturbing meditation on human desire, sadomasochism, and hedonism. Barker created an entire universe within a single film- a universe where pleasure and pain are intertwined and flesh is weak. Who could have predicted that Hellraiser would go on to spawn 7 sequels, that Pinhead would go on to become a bonafide horror icon?
I don't know...maybe Micki Dahne?
It's a tale as old as time itself: unsatisfied with the pleasures available to him in our dimension, Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) seeks out and purchases a puzzle box from a mysterious dealer. Upon opening the puzzle box, the Cenobites appear- they're demons from another dimension, natch- and tear Frank apart with chains, hooks, and all manner of pain-inflicting paraphernalia. The puzzle box closes and Frank disappears.
Frank's mousy brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) moves into Frank's empty house with his frigid wife Julia (Clare Higgins); before long, Julia is reminiscing about her brief-n-torrid affair with Frank. Larry can't satisfy her with his gentle ways- Julia needs a man who gets things done! By "things", of course, I mean "her".
After Larry accidentally cuts his hand and spills some blood on the floor, Frank is resurrected- but not completely. Though he's gooey and grody, Frank convinces Julia to provide him with bodies on which to feed; their blood will make him complete. Once he's complete, he and Julia can once again get it on, and Frank promises they'll run away together to escape the Cenobites, who will no doubt be pissed that Frank managed to elude their grasp.
Into the midst of all of this wanders Larry's daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), who soon enough finds herself battling both Uncle Frank and the Cenobites. What's a girl to do?
I always enjoy watching the earliest films in a horror franchise- it gives you a chance to check out the movie maniacs before they were stars, so to speak. You know, back when Freddy Krueger was more frightening than funny...and when the atrocities inflicted by Pinhead and Company played second fiddle to the atrocities humans inflict on one another in the name of selfish pursuits. Yes, that time long ago, before the Cenobites were depicted on t-shirts and reduced to Lego-size.
Admittedly, though, those Lego Cenobites are kickass and cute as Hell- though I'm sure Clive Barker never intended them to be cute. These demons are at their most frightening in Hellraiser, and that's largely thanks to Barker's direction. They're kept largely in the shadows, they're mysterious, intimidating, and fucking scary. The threats the Cenobites make- or are they promises?- make something as innocuous as a small puzzle box a frightening tool of eeeeevil, a gateway to a dimension you might not want to visit. That said, however, it's still not as terrifying as the time I finally solved a Rubik's Cube and this dude showed up at my door:
With the exception of the laser light show at the end of the film, the effects in Hellraiser are top notch. There's blood and goo and gross chunks galore, and Frank's resurrection scene is a gory joy to behold (though I couldn't help but think- "Man, that's going to be all CGIed in the remake...").
Clive Barker created a world that horror fans simply wanted to see more of, and so Pinhead and His Peeps have gone on to all sorts of wacky adventures through time and- Charles Nelson Reilly help us all- outer space. It's understandable, in a way, that the Cenobites would move to center stage in subsequent films in the series, but they're at their most frightening when they act as a sort of Greek chorus, when they show us the true horrors of human nature.