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When Hellraiser was unleashed on theater screens in 1987, its young writer/director Clive Barker was already well established as an avant-garde playwright and a writer of horror stories and novels. His short story collections Books of Blood and his novels The Damnation Game and Weaveworld had garnered a fervent following among genre aficionados. But for all his success in the literary world, the bright lights of Hollywood still eluded him, which was a shame since his stories and novels screamed out for cinematic adaptations. The previous attempts at bringing Barker’s work to the screen had been the intriguing yet horribly-executed mutant/noir film Underworld (a.k.a. Transmutations) –- for which Barker wrote the original screenplay -- and the slightly better though still inept Rawhead Rex, based upon the short story of the same name. George Pavlou, who up to that point had directed several short films and commercials, was responsible for both abominations.

Considering the source material, it was difficult to see how both films could utterly lack what Barker’s stories were infused with -- imagination. Obviously, Barker was would have to take matters into his own hands if he ever wanted to see an adaptation even vaguely resembling his own unique, visual style.

So Barker, along with producer Chris Figg, approached American-based film company New World Pictures with a screenplay based upon Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart. Once they got the green light, production moved back to England and filming began in North London. However, despite its obvious British locale, actors (except for Ashley Laurence and Andrew Robinson who were American), and production crew, the studio wanted to erase all hints that Hellraiser was indeed a very English affair.

Regardless, Hellraiser was one of the few British-made horror films of the 1980s (though there were notable exceptions such as Neil Jordan’s splendid The Company of Wolves, based on a series of stories by Angela Carter). The days of Hammer Horror were long gone and with it all the gothic dross which had proliferated over the years in the genre

Hellraiser aimed to be a full-fledged shock to the system. "There Are No Limits" warned the film’s ad campaign, and for the most part, Hellraiser delivered. It was proud to be a horror film. It was serious-minded and wanted to be treated accordingly, unlike many of the other films in the genre at that time that whole-heartedly abandoned any real sense of fear in exchange for a barrage of cheap laughs and even cheaper thrills. Ultimately these films were neither scary nor funny. Just boring. In time, the Hellraiser series would fall prey to this same fate. But whatever sins the Hellraiser franchise must atone for, Barker’s original film is still a dark, potent, daringly original exercise in the joys of perversity and pain. Not to mention love. Because at its core, Hellraiser is a tale of a love found, lost, and rediscovered. Transformed, for better or worse.

The film plays out like a domestic melodrama, though one capable of ripping out your throat. Married couple Larry (Andrew Robinson) and Julia (Claire Higgins) move into their new digs (Larry’s family homestead), hoping to start a new life filled with hope and promise. Of course, it’s not meant to be. The place is cluttered with too many memories, too much evidence (both figuratively and literally) pertaining to Frank (Sean Chapman), Larry’s darkly smoldering younger brother (with whom Julia once had a passionate affair). It seems Frank had been squatting in the house up until the move, though he has since disappeared.

In the film’s brilliant opening sequence, we learn how this disappearance has occurred: Frank acquires a puzzle box known as the Lament Configuration, which enables him to open up doorways to other dimensions. This is also the first glimpse we receive of the film’s most glorious creations, the Cenobites, demons from the outer regions of reality who govern the workings of the fabled puzzle box.

Unlike the other films in the series, Barker wisely uses the Cenobites sparingly, which only accentuates their strangeness and our terror. This is one of the few times that Barker could actually be said to have attended the school of less is more.

Julia eventually learns of Frank’s fate and agrees to help free him from his supernatural captors. Her love of Frank knows no bounds. Some of the film’s more suspenseful scenes include her luring men back to the house--ostensibly for sex but actually for their blood because only through the shedding of blood (lots of blood) can Frank's body be replenished, allowing him to re-enter this world. But Julia’s attempt at bringing back her lover is complicated with the involvement of Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), who is suspicious of Julia’s behavior.

Hellraiser is filled with macabre imagery: one of the Cenobites pieces together fragments of a human face as if it were a jigsaw puzzle; Kirsty solves the puzzle box herself, conjuring up the Cenobites; the still skinless Frank smokes a cigarette in the attic of the house (juxtaposing the surreal and the mundane). The performances by the film’s leads are excellent, especially Claire Higgins, who brings a fierce convincing cruelty to her role. Christopher Young’s lush, sweeping score helps give the film the illusion of being more expansive than its humble low budget origins (though one can’t help but wonder how the film would have fared with Barker’s original idea of having British experimental group Coil compose the soundtrack).

But the film is not without its faults, most notably the flashback sequences of Julia and Frank, which look like they were borrowed from a Harlequin Romance. And New World Pictures’ absurd attempt at Americanizing the film included dubbing most of the actors’ voices (though Claire Higgins fortunately managed to escape that fate).

Barker would go on to direct other films, such as the ambitious yet troubled (production-wise and narrative-wise) epic monster-fest Nightbreed (1990) and the neo-noir horror film Lord of Illusions(1995), but neither of those films managed to capture the public’s fascination as well as Hellraiser did and still does today.

Anchor Bay’s splendid DVD of Hellraiser includes both the widescreen version (1.85:1) and the full-screen version. An excellent audio commentary featuring Clive Barker and star Ashley Laurence, moderated by novelist and screenwriter Peter Atkins, is also included. A theatrical trailer and still gallery is also included. But the best feature on the disc is a new 20-minute featurette entitled Resurrection, which includes interviews with Barker, Laurence, Doug Bradley (Pinhead) and many others from the production. The featurette is admittedly too short and could have used more behind-the-scenes footage -- which makes it far from definitive -- but this is probably the final word on this modern horror classic.


Hellraiser now available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment. Suggested retail price: $24.95. For more information, check out the Anchor Bay Entertainment Web site.