Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Hellraiser (1987)

Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987) is one of my favorite horror flicks -- It even came out the same year I was born! -- but it suffers from the Candyman curse: too artsy for horror, too trashy for art. Some reviewers seem to dislike it instinctively (Ebert's review is especially bitchy. Calm down, Roger, it's only a movie). I suspect that their hackles were raised because Hellraiser's highbrow, mythic tone probably seemed a little pretentious during the Golden Age of Trash Slashers. The grandiosity, however, isn't entirely bullshit. It's laden with too many hammer-and-hook murders to totally escape the "slasher" label, but Hellraiser isn't just a movie about People Getting Killed, and its ruminations on the inevitable degradation rooted in hedonism and masochism occasionally hit a kind of Greek Tragedy-esque sweet spot.

Electrolysis gone wrong.
The hell and the hurting kicks off when young Kirsty's (Ashley Laurence) no-good, very bad Uncle Frank (Sean Chapman) solves a puzzle box that sends him to the Cenobites' realm of pain and pleasure. (The Cenobites are the bald guys in the S+M getups on all the posters. You only see them for about ten minutes). After Uncle Frank vanishes, Kirsty's dad Larry (Andrew Robinson) and stepmother Julia (Clare Higgins) movie into his empty house. Kirsty elects to live with her boyfriend. Everything's going swimmingly until Frank escapes the Cenobites' realm in a nasty-looking deskinned format and enlists Julia's help procuring a fresh human form: hard up for bodies, they finally "borrow" Larry's. Kirsty catches wind of what's going on and subsequently makes a deal with the Cenobites to return Frank to their hell realm.

The most unusual thing about all this is that Hellraiser's iconic baddie, Pinhead (Doug Bradley), isn't much of a baddie at all. Pinhead (or Lead Cenobite, as the official credits more respectfully call him) doesn't actually do much. He doesn't have to. The humans in this movie are good enough at killing each other  without his help. Furthermore, most of the victims are not frolicsome teenagers but middle-aged businessmen Julia leads back to Frank's chamber. Julia and especially Frank are the real villains of Hellraiser: Pinhead's just a catalyst. A cool-looking catalyst, but that's beside the point.

Not everything in Hellraiser works. A shot of a red carnation bursting into bloom as Julia turns to the dark side is way too highflown and silly. There's also an annoyingly random old man who appears once in a while to glower at Kirsty and munch on the crickets at the pet store where she works. He doesn't appear to have any function beyond Creeping You Out, which the Cenobites do a perfectly adequate job of without any help. These missteps are distractions, though, not dealbreakers. I give Hellraiser a 5/5. It's not a perfect movie, but it's miles closer than most horror. How'd you like them apples, Ebert?

Fashion faux pas: white shirt during battle with bloody corpse.
 FINAL GIRL: Ashley Laurence as Kirsty, a Final Girl who acts like a human being and not just a mannequin being ferried by bored screenwriters through her several requisite brushes with doom. Even though she gets put through the same motions as her less clever Final Girl counterparts (the screaming, the fleeing, the trembling in horror) Kirsty's not cut from the same cloth as, say, those brainless twits in Friday the 13th. She's independent from the beginning of the film, insisting on getting a job and living alone instead of with her dad and wicked stepmom: then, when things really go Pete Tong, she's coolheaded enough to cut a deal with the Cenobites and save her own skin in the process. She's a tough little Eighties cookie. I'll even forgive her the perm.

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