“What’s your pleasure Mr. Cotton?”
This question created one of the most influential horror franchises in modern film history. Hellraiser came out on September 11th, 1987, and has since produced 9 sequels, a series of novels, comics and has become an icon of the horror genre. But what has made this series stick in our nightmares throughout these 31 years? What has raised Pinhead to a horror icon on par with Jason Voorhees, Freddy Kruger, Michael Myers, and Chucky? Especially when considering he has less than 10 minutes of screen time in this first film.
Opening the Box
It all began in 1986 when the novella The Hellbound Heart hit bookstores by a new up and coming author by the name of Clive Barker. Barker had written a few screenplays and short stories that became films, like Underworld (1986) and Rawhead Rex (1986). He decided that for his next adaptation that he was going to direct it instead because he did not like what they had done with his earlier material. He brought his script to New World and Christopher Figg agreed to produce the film for $900,000, even though this would be Barker’s debut film. Barker’s original title was Sadomasochist’s From Beyond The Grave but changed to Hellraiser. They had seven weeks to complete filming. Little did they know they would be creating a worldwide sensation.
Hellraiser begins with an unknown man buying a simple puzzle box, We later find out his name is Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman). He is kneeling, surrounded by candles. The box is in his hands. He rubs the side of it and the box opens up briefly, before closing back down. Hooks then shoot out of the box and pierce his skin, making him cry out. The next shot shows chains hanging from the ceiling and the floor covered with blood and gore. A shadowed figure walks over and places fragments of Frank’s face back together. The figure then walks over to the box and picks it up. Pins are protruding from his head. He opens the box back up, twists it, and pushes it back down. After it closes, the man, the flesh and the chains all disappear.
Horror fans were definitely hooked by the opening sequence, no pun intended. After some time, Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) move into Frank’s old house. Through a stroke of bad luck and a simple cut on Larry’s hand, Frank is re-animated back into a corpse. Julia finds him in the attic and he asks for her help. She recognizes him because they had an affair on her wedding day. He convinces her to help him by bringing unsuspecting men into the attic and killing them with a hammer so he can suck out their blood and regenerate. For his final victim, Frank opts for his brother Larry, stealing his skin. Luckily, Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) finds out about the Cenobites and tricks Frank back into their clutches. She escapes from the Cenobites as the house collapses and burns.
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The film finishes by showing two men sitting at a table with the box between them. They are discussing the sale of the box again, like we saw in the beginning, therefore setting up a sequel.
Although the cenobites have an extraordinarily short amount of screen-time, they are what keep drawing people back to the series. Doug Bradley portrays Lead Cenobite, affectionately known as Pinhead. Following are Chattering Cenobite (Nicholas Vince), Butterball Cenobite (Simon Bamford), and female Cenobite (Grace Kirby).
Not much is ever really explained about them in this first one except that they bring suffering and torture to those who play with the box. One of Cenobite frontman Pinhead’s more popular lines that actually made the poster is “Angel’s to some, demons to others.”
Frank: “I thought I’d gone to the limits. I hadn’t. The cenobites gave me an experience beyond limits. Pain and pleasure, indivisible.”
But what makes Hellraiser stand out from the other horror movies of the time? Even though Pinhead is of course the most recognizable character in the film, he is not the sole villain. He is called upon by Frank.
But, I believe the true villain of this film is the wife Julia. Not only is she quick to become a cold-blooded killer – within the first 20 minutes of the movie, she has an affair with Frank, on her wedding dress! Plus, luring men into her home and killing them with a hammer all to continue her affair with her husband’s brother, is pretty low. If you’re still on the fence – Julia also holds the highest kill count in the movie; with three kills. Frank has only 2; Julia and Larry, and Pinhead kills Frank twice, but we’re only giving him 1 point for that.
Love and Lust
What sets this film apart from all the slashers that were coming out in the 80’s is the complexity behind the gruesome imagery and violence. Instead of your typical horny teenager stereotypes engaging in activities that killers don’t approve of, Hellraiser needs to punish or absolve its characters on a deeper level. What it ultimately comes down to is a battle between love versus lust. Frank and Julia are on the side of lust. Frank became entwined with the Cenobites because he was looking for something more. He had engorged himself on lust and nothing could get him that same excitement. Julia kills people because she wants to have Frank. She says she will do anything for him, not out of love but lust. On the other side, Kirsty and Larry fight for love. Larry is trying to make Julia happy and save their marriage, while Kirsty is trying to save her dad. This is different from many of the 80’s horror films and this brought a whole new level of depth to horror movies for years to come.
Hellraiser initially received mixed reviews from critics, but earned $14 million at the box office. A sequel was green lit even before the original hit theaters, and in within less than a year Hellbound: Hellraiser II came out. Since then, the series has declined with its direct-to-video releases but the first one still very much haunts people today. A reboot has been in the works for some time, but has yet to go from development to production. All we can do is keep waiting for Pinhead to torture us once again.
What do you think of the original Hellraiser film?