Hellraiser (1987)

Clive Barker

Clare Higgins - Julia Cotton
Ashley Laurence - Kirsty Cotton
Andrew Robinson - Larry Cotton
Sean Chapman - Frank Cotton
Oliver Smith - Skinless Frank
Doug Bradley - Pinhead
Nicholas Vince - Chatterer
Simon Banford - Butterball
Grace Kirby - Female Cenobite

Genre - Horror/Supernatural/Demons

Running Time - 93 Minutes

As you've noticed on this blog, I've been heavily been doing reviews for certain franchises - recently films related to THE AVENGERS and I'm still reviewing films from the live-action BATMAN franchise. But I realized that Full Moon Reviews has been seriously lacking in horror lately, especially when it comes to reviewing films within a franchise. The last one was for the POLTERGEIST franchise a few months ago, and I haven't really focused on the horror genre since. Well, that's going to change as the horror quota is going to increase on this blog during the summer. You'll still get comic book and action reviews, but it's time we get back to what this blog was about to begin with.

To do that, I decided to finally give in and start reviewing a franchise many of you have been wanting me to do for years now. I'm not sure if it's because you genuinely care about my opinion for every film in this franchise, or you just want me to suffer through the downward spiral of this particular horror series. But as your host, I must please my guests. So because of that, I will review the entire HELLRAISER franchise before 2012 is over. You're very welcome.

Thankfully, we get to start with the 1987 Clive Barker classic that started it all - you know, before the sequels destroyed what Barker presented to begin with? HELLRAISER has never been my favorite franchise, nor have I seen every film in this franchise [besides the first 4 and the God-awful last "sequel"]. But I figured it's better to get it over with now before I go more insane than I already am. So let's begin this franchise review by opening that puzzle box and seeing whether HELLRAISER deserves its classic status and whether it still holds up after all these years.

Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) brings trouble wherever he goes. This time around, trouble comes in the form of a small puzzle box he buys from an Asian man. Bringing the box home and going up to his attic, Frank solves the puzzle of the box. He's happy at first, but then that goes away when he realizes that opening the box means being sucked into Hell - ran by mysterious demons known as Cenobites. These monsters claim that some see them as angels, while others seem them as demons. In Frank's case, since she was shredding to death, he probably sees them as the latter.

In the meantime, Frank's brother Larry (
Andrew Robinson) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) are moving into the Cotton home that both Larry and Frank own - the same place where Frank had his unfortunate accident. Larry and Julia's marriage isn't as tight as the outside world believes. Larry, while a nice guy, is a bit vanilla. Julia, who may look proper on the outside, is really a sexual creature who wants excitement in her life. In fact, Julia had an affair with Frank - an affair so good that she gets aroused whenever she sees his photo or thinks about him. Larry also has a daughter named Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), who doesn't have the greatest relationship with Julia.

While Julia is inside the attic thinking about her lust for Frank, Larry cuts his hand on a nail while moving a mattress upstairs. He rushes to the attic for Julia's help, dripping blood all over the attic floor. When the couple leaves, the blood seeps through the floor and somehow reviving Frank from being the Cenobites' prisoner. However, Frank is skinless and nothing but bones and cartilage. When Julia returns to the attic, she finds this version of Frank - who asks her to help him bring in victims for their blood and flesh in order to become whole again. While she knows it's wrong, her lust for Frank overcomes her - agreeing to Frank's demands. Julia begins bringing random men who believe they're going to have sex with her - instead being fed to Frank. Kirsty catches Julia one day, investigating what's going on. She discovers a skinless Frank, fights him off, and takes off with the puzzle box.

Kirsty, unfortunately, also opens the box. The Cenobites come after her, but she strikes a deal with the leader, Pinhead, to save herself by offering them Frank once more. Pinhead agrees, only if Frank confesses his true identity. While Kirsty tries to get out of serious trouble with the Cenobites, she's about to get some more from a vengeful Julia and Frank.


HELLRAISER is one of those films that has stuck with me ever since I watched it in 1988 on cable at my aunt's apartment at the time. While I didn't really get the whole sexual and sado-masochistic themes that HELLRAISER seems to embrace, I did understand the gory special effects and being grossed out by them. Because of that, watching HELLRAISER again recently after so many years of not seeing it made me feel like that seven-year-old boy again. However as an adult, the soap opera aspect and the sexuality definitely enhance the experience. And that's why HELLRAISER still holds up well after 25 years - the drama within the Cotton family, and then later with the Cenobites, is still as effective as I'm sure it was back in 1987. This was pretty original for its time, and that's why a lot of horror fans still embrace Clive Barker's work here.

HELLRAISER is based on Clive Barker's novella, "The Hellbound Heart". After seeing how the films he wrote for, 1985's TRANSMUTATIONS and 1986's RAWHEAD REX - two films he felt the final product didn't reflect what he had in mind on paper - Barker decided to direct HELLRAISER in addition of adapting a screenplay from his novella. While the visuals are what make HELLRAISER stand out from many of the horror films at the time of its release, the script is no slouch either. I'm sure judging by the film's poster, DVD covers, and how iconic the character would later become, people who have yet to watch HELLRAISER [any horror fans who haven't should turn in their membership right now] probably think the film revolves around Pinhead and his Cenobites. While the sequels would do this and focus on the villains more than they probably should have, the first film is more focused on the human characters and the drama they've created amongst themselves.

The Cotton family are a pretty interesting bunch, really due to their interactions with each other. Larry doesn't respect his brother, Frank, due to Frank always getting into trouble. Larry and Julia love each other, but Julia is bored by Larry sexually. This pushes Julia into the arms, and bed, of Frank. Kirsty loves her father, tries to accept Julia as her stepmother, and is creeped out by her uncle Frank, who seems to have sexual feelings towards Kirsty. The demons are just the spice. This family may look normal to the outside world, but are pretty addicted to sinning and morally corrupting themselves and each other.

The most interesting relationship, and the strongest part of the screenplay, is between Julia and Frank. These two drive the film from its beginning to its conclusion through their depraved affections for each other and their actions. Frank shows that he has no moral bone in his body. He buys this puzzle box, feeling he'll get some rich prize by opening it [oops]. Frank photographs himself having sex with random women and admires his work. He sleeps with his brother's wife, not caring if its ruins their marriage. He escapes his prison from Hell, wanting Julia to act like a slut so she can kill for him. He even lusts after his own niece as if it's a natural thing, when it's just creepy. Frank is more of a monster than any of the Cenobites.

Julia is no better. She actually gives in to every temptation Frank offers her. She loves rough sex, getting off being dominated by Frank in-and-out of the bedroom. Even though she knows it's wrong, she still kills men for Frank to feed on them. This woman is so in lust/love with Frank that she's willing to suck his skinless fingers erotically. When Kirsty finds out what Julia is up to, Julia lets Frank go after Larry to complete the healing process while coming up with a way to keep Kirsty quiet for good. Julia's relationship with Frank goes with the S & M theme - Frank is the Master and Julia is the Slave. She holds her own with her husband, but when it comes to Frank, she's aroused by being submissive for him. Their twisted and evil relationship gives HELLRAISER its heartbeat, as they are so deviously sinful that it's fun to watch.

Larry, Julia's husband and Frank's brother, isn't much of a character. He's a great dad. He's a good husband. He's more respectable than his brother. But he isn't as juicy as Frank or Julia. Still, he has a place in the film and acts as the "dramatic irony" character - the character who doesn't realize what's going on around him until it's too late. The only sin he commits is loving and trusting Julia too much and not getting much of anything in return.

While Julia and Frank are the focus of the first two acts, both together and individually, Kirsty gets the focus in the last act. She's the typical Final Girl of her time. She's smart. She's very intuitive. She's a good girl who tries to do the right thing. And she's tough and will fight back for her family, friends, and her own survival. She's the one who figures out Frank's plan. She's the one who lets the Cenobites loose on Frank and Julia.  She's a very proactive character, which makes her interesting and instantly likeable since she wants to stop the cycle Frank has started. While not as much of a sinner as Frank or Julia, the fact that she has premarital sex and lives with her boyfriend shows that she's not exactly a virgin or a "pure soul". Still, she's the only main human character in the film not blinded by love and lust, making her quite aware of what's going on around her.

As for Pinhead and his Cenobites, they're more background characters here than they will be in later sequels. But I feel that makes them more interesting, since their mysterious nature makes the audience ponder what their deal is. Their enigmatic nature makes them creepier and more monstrous. They never drive the story. They're just here to serve it towards the film's climax. Making HELLRAISER less about the demons and more about the humans allows the audience to connect with the story better. I think that's where the sequels I've seen lost a bit of its edge. While it's understandable that filmmakers would want to explore the history of the Cenobites, as it's only logical, the connection is lost and turns the villains into everyone else. Because of their lack of a presence in the main chunk of the narrative, the Cenobites come across as a special attraction that enhances the film instead of distracting from it.

I thought the sexual and religious themes touched upon in HELLRAISER rise it above other horror films of its time. It's kind of funny, and a bit logical perhaps, that Hell looks like a sex dungeons with chains, hooks, and other scary things that will cause a ton of pain to someone. Makes sense that the Cenobites are dressed in leather, looking like dominatrixes from a leather bar or something. I already touched upon Frank and Julia's sexual relationship, but Larry also wants to have a sexual relationship with Julia and she never lets it happen. In fact, it strains their marriage when she refuses him [mainly because she was scared Frank was going to kill him during the act], complaining that Julia is fickle with her desires. And what about that scene where some phallic looking creature, with arms and two heads, chases Kirsty through a tunnel? If that's not symbolism, I don't know what is.

As for the religious and spiritual themes in the film, it's more subtle than the sexuality. Still, the theme is pretty hard to miss. I love the moment where Kirsty first approaches the Cotton home, noticing Christian iconography outside. These idols were in a previous scene, all set up nicely inside the home. It's as if there's no place for God in this home, especially after what Frank did upstairs. Frank's final line, "Jesus wept," is also a powerful piece of dialogue - sending chills down your spine as something not exactly uplifting. Also, the Cenobites claim that they are "Demons to some, Angels to others." Experience seems to put these monsters in either category, depending on the person who opens the puzzle box. They're not evil, they're just doing their job. It's how people view them that describe them one way or the other.

There's also a lot of sacrifice as well in this film. When Frank opens the box, he kneels on the attic floor, surrounded by a circle of candles. He seems to be selling his soul for, what he believes is, a greater prize. Julia sacrifices her marriage and her morality to Frank. She cheats on her husband and kills for her lover, sacrificing any bit of good she had in her to quench her desires. And Kirsty, not wanting to die at the hands of the Cenobites, makes a deal with them, sacrificing Frank in exchange for her own soul. HELLRAISER is a pretty deep film if you read between the lines.

I do have some issues with the narrative. For one, what's up with that hobo who likes to eat bugs at the pet store? He appears at the end and presents the audience with a true WTF moment. I won't spoil it, but it didn't make sense when I was seven-years-old and it still doesn't make sense now that I'm thirty-one. I guess it's supposed to be symbolic or something. Maybe it adds to the surrealism of the narrative itself. But it just leaves me scratching my head. Not exactly the best ending, in my opinion.

Also, why was the boyfriend character even in this film? I get Kirsty is a young woman and should have someone in her life. But this dude did nothing of note. He's a non-factor here and shows up at the end all of a sudden to help Kirsty. Yeah, this guy is neither interesting or worth investing into. I'm not sure if this character had a more pivotal role in the novella HELLRAISER is based on, but he's a waste of paper here.

And what about that hospital Kirsty is admitted to? What a bunch of pricks. The girl faints in the middle of the street, and these doctors and nurses want to be assholes to her. They even lock her inside her room, as if she's some sort of criminal. Maybe the fact that she had blood on her clothes made the staff think she committed a crime or something. But the girl could have been in a bad accident. Or maybe she was attacked. The doctors and nurses come off looking like assholes by judging her instead of helping her. Wherever this film takes place is the last place I'm going for medical treatment. Geez.

The special effects and make up effects in HELLRAISER still work 25 years later for the most part. Some of the effects are dated, especially the laser show whenever a Cenobite disappears back to the Hell they came from towards the end of the film. And whenever skin gets pulled apart by hooks, you can tell the "flesh" is like latex or something. It looks pretty cheesy, but that's the 80s for you.

However, the rest is great. The Cenobites look really creepy and distinctive from one another. They have sewn up wounds, piercings, and pieces of skin hanging off. It looks pretty awesome, even today. It's no wonder Pinhead became iconic, because he looks like a dude you would never mess with. You ask yourself about why he has these pins through his head, then you realize maybe it's better not knowing. And who can beat the scene where Frank resurrects himself in the attic? The way the blood and the slime comes together, with the use of stop motion animation, to create this skinless man is just beautiful and so well-done. This scene actually scared me when I was younger, but now I just admire it as a great work of art. If this was CGI, it would look like that. The practical effects, especially on such a low budget, make Frank's resurrection scene all more impressive. I also love Skinless Frank's look as well. Sure, some of it is dated, but the important effects are still timeless.

The direction by Clive Barker, who would only direct two more films in his career [1990's underrated NIGHTBREED and 1995's decent LORD OF ILLUSIONS], shows that he has a perverted visual eye for terror and torture. Barker's use of the low budget is perfect, as he only really uses a single location for the most part and saves money for the cool make up and effects. Barker displays a lot of style and strong tension and suspense, especially when Kirsty opens the box in the hospital and anytime Frank and Julia kill people. I also dug the juxtaposition of Larry cutting his hand on the nail while Julia remembers getting 'nailed' by Frank. I think Barker is also great at showing us every gory moment, so we can really see the awfulness of the entire situation. You feel kind of dirty after you finish watching the film, but in a good way. I think this is Barker's best film that he has directed. I think Barker has some great ideas visually and it sucks that his later films didn't really capture an audience, which made him stick to producing and writing instead. The film is called HELLRAISER and Barker takes sick pleasure in giving us Hell being raised.

The acting is mostly good. Andrew Robinson does what he can as normal, good guy Larry. It isn't until his change during the final act where Robinson really gets to go all out and have fun with the part. Clare Higgins is fantastic as Julia. She looks so prim and proper, with her British accent, but obviously enjoys playing a woman who's a sexual deviant and a murderer for love. She's totally convincing in the role and makes the entire situation more believable than it has any right to. Ashley Laurence is very good as Kirsty. She plays the archetype of a Final Girl quite well, making Kirsty strong, intelligent, and normal. I'll be talking about Laurence two more times during this franchise. Sean Chapman does okay as Frank. He has this sleaziness about him, but obviously women seem to like that in this film. Oliver Smith wasn't all that good as Skinless Frank though. His delivery was unintentionally funny and didn't really convince me in the role. But he wasn't totally terrible. Doug Bradley and the other actors who play the Cenobites are memorable in their roles, but they won't be chewing scenery until the sequels come around. Overall, a nice cast.

Special mention goes to Christopher Young's score. It's very memorable and eerie at times. Fits the film well. I thought the sound design in general enhanced the movie a lot. Watch it in the dark and you might feel a little something. I dug the sound design for HELLRAISER.


- When Frank opened the puzzle box, he was torn apart. It's like getting that paternity test back from Maury - once you open that box and you're the father, your life will be torn apart.

- Julia had a secret affair with Larry's brother, Frank. I wonder if she had an affair with George too when Larry played Liberace in that TV movie years later.

- Kirsty called her father after she had a bad dream. She must have watched HELLRAISER: BLOODLINES. Not H
ELLRAISER: REVELATIONS - she wouldn't have woken up after that.

- Julia finds lonely men, luring them to the house to feed blood and flesh to Frank. Julia should work for the Red Cross since she's a pro at conducting a serious blood drive.

- Frank sliced a rat in front of Julia while Larry was trying to have sex with her. Poor Splinter. Frank's quite the Shredder.

- Frank lusts for Kirsty. They say incest is a game the whole family can play - but hopefully it'll won't turn into a two-hour movie with aliens screwing family members while Rihanna wears a bad wig in the background.

HELLRAISER is a classic because it was original for its time and bold to go to places many horror films previously implied but never really showed. While the film is dated with some effects and some subplots could have been left out or are just plain confusing, HELLRAISER still manages to hold up extremely well after 25 years. It's not scary, but it's kind of disturbing - something horror needs more of these days. It's a shame that most of the sequels are also disturbing, for a different reason entirely. Unfortunately I'll get to those sooner than later. I opened the puzzle box and now have to suffer for my sins. Thankfully I'm used to the pain of bad cinema. But at least HELLRAISER starts out great and should be watched by anyone who calls themselves a horror fan.

4 Howls Outta 4


  1. Actually Fred, I've read the book, and the boyfriend isn't even in it! haha! (And he just phases right out of existence for H 2: Hellbound) In fact, Kirsty isn't even Larry's daughter, if memory serves me correctly. I think she's just a friend.

    One of my favourite things about Hellraiser is Andy Robinson's performance as Frank. He's not in the film much, but he is awesome!

    Have you seen H: Revelations yet? I would have, but I'm not willing to fork out 30 bucks for a reputedly terrible movie.

  2. Someone on Facebook told me that Kirsty was, in fact, a friend rather than Larry's daughter. I'm more curious now to read the novella because I didn't think it was changed all that much. I'm interested now. At least that schmuck of a boyfriend isn't in the story.

    I love Robinson's performance as Frank as well. Just a total 180 that creeps you out.

    As for HELLRAISER: REVELATIONS, I unfortunately have seen it. Don't bother wasting money on it. It's garbage and should be avoided at all costs, unless you're reviewing it like I will. Which means I'm gonna have to watch it a second time. Fuck.

  3. I completely agree with you on this one Fred. I haven't seen it in a while - but it might make an appearance on Blu-Ray during this October's Crazy Movie Weekend. I have seen it this century though, and it worked for me then - so I am with you that it is one that has held up over the years. The sequels were some of the first movies I added to my Netflix queue YEARS ago - because here was a way to see them without having to buy them. I watched a couple of them, and one of them was so bad I haven't watched the last couple. SIGH. When you get to part 3 - it was filmed in High Point NC, where I have in-law family (who might be better termed outlaw family). I just love that a movie set in New York City (I think) was filmed in a small North Carolina city. Can't wait to read that one! Cheers!

    1. I had no idea HELLRAISER 3: HELL ON EARTH was film in NC. That's pretty funny. I actually don't mind that sequel all too much. It's not great, but better compared to HELLRAISER: BLOODLINES [part 4]. I'm trying to do HELLBOUND and HELL ON EARTH for June. Want to get this franchise over with sooner than later before I go insane.

      As for the first film, definitely holds up and is still quite effective. It'll be interesting what will be done with the remake, although Clive Barker is part of the production. So it might be okay.

    2. For some reason, the Julia character reminds me of the real-life murderess Marilyn Plantz, the typical bored housewife who murdered her husband (with assistance). Her and her not-too-bright young male accomplices were caught up in her naughty "MILF appeal," plus she promised them $ from the poor husband's life insur. BUT they all were busted 3 days later. Life for one dude who testified...both Marilyn and the other guy were executed in 2001. Check out her pre-prison photo where she's wearing red. Oddly similar to Julia?


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