Horrific Perfection

Hi there. I’ve been meaning to get this blog off the ground for a long time, considering I’ve spent the past several years writing reviews of horror movies only to do nothing but save them to my desktop. So here we are.

Before I get into more recent or mediocre films, I’d like to get this baby rolling with a discussion on what I consider to be The Perfect Horror Movie: Hellraiser.

hellraiser by you. 

Clive Barker wrote and directed Hellraiser in 1987. He basically appeared out of anonymity to face-melt the entire horror flick community. Yeah, he’d published some short story anthologies and a novel or two, and he’d had a couple of short films. But there was really no sign to indicate Clive Barker’s masterfully horrific savvy as both an auteur and an author; certainly nothing to suggest that he would soon create The Perfect Horror Movie. What makes Hellraiser perfect? Well, if you have to ask, you’re probably at this site just to be nice to me, so I’ll repay the favor and answer your question.

* It’s short. At 94 minutes, Hellraiser is my ideal length for a horror film. Indeed, for most films. I’ll give a grudging grace period anywhere between 90-120 minutes, but once a film tops two hours, it had better be the best damn movie I have ever seen. Apocalypse Now, I will abide. Silent Hill, I will not.

SilentHillTeaserPoster by you. 

Seriously? 127 minutes for this movie? I haven’t even watched it based on that knowledge.

* The make-up. Oh, the make-up.  Bob Keen did an utterly rad job of the special effects make-up in this movie. And it’s ALL MANUAL. I really, really dig manual FX. I’m not a purist, I’m not going to pretend I don’t ooh and ahh at some kick-ass CGI, I just really like manual FX. Especially in terms of horror make-up. I mean, just look at this resplendence!

hr by you. 

Yikes! Are you honestly telling me that magnificent spectacle could be improved with computer technology? No sir. Give me foam latex and some red corn syrup every time. If you’ve ever seen Frank’s dazzling bodily restoration from the Cenobite dimension through his brother’s blood on the floor…well, then you know of what I speak. ALL MANUAL. If you haven’t seen it, man, I wish I could find it on YouTube, because that is one of the most glorious sequences in all horror history.

hr blood floor by you.

hr floor by you. 

* Hellraiser gets the atmosphere just right. It’s never silly, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, either. The film just nails that creepy, surreal, wrongly religious vibe similar to Argento’s Suspiria; however, while Suspiria seems to float along at a slow, lilting pace (and please don’t think I’m insulting that brilliant film, which deserves its own post), Hellraiser starts the action instantaneously. I mean, that is one hard-core opening. The film begins with the mystery of the box–what is this box? What does it do? Why does it look so totally awesome?

box1 by you. 

 Why is this sketchily hot man purchasing it? 

box2 by you. 

And then…what is he doing with it?

frank box by you.

box3 by you.

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hr box 1 by you.

hr box 2 by you.

And finally…oh shit. I don’t think he should have done that.

box5 by you.

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Barker next establishes the setting. And wouldn’t you know it, the setting is everyman Larry’s late mother’s creepy-ass house, abominably filthy and brimming with macabre religious iconography.

house1 by you.

house3 by you.

house5 by you.

I love a good old haunted house, don’t you? Much of the film takes place here, giving it both a theatrical and a claustrophobic quality. After the very cool and very brief introduction into this ghastly world, the action gets started. And there is plenty of action.  There’s always something compelling happening in the “real world” of the film (such as Kirsty and Julia’s mutual acrimony or Larry’s insecurity over his relationship with Julia) at the same time as the surreal and spooky images that make up the dream world.

hr dream by you. 

* Hellraiser also boasts some solid acting. Let’s face it: as horror fans, we endure hefty loads of over-acting, under-acting, and consistently wretched casting. Not so here.  Andrew Robinson’s Larry seems rather forgettable and certainly innocuous; 

hr larry by you. 

 that is, until Robinson plays evil brother Frank wearing Larry’s skin, achieving ultimate creeps when he snarls at Larry’s daughter Kirsty to “Come to Daddy.”

larry frank's skin by you.

come to daddy by you. 

Ashley Laurence as Kirsty is cute and likable. Her acting isn’t phenomenal, but considering Hellraiser was her first film role and it’s a hefty one, she handles it admirably. You just find yourself rooting for Kirsty. She’s spunky.

hr kirsty 2 by you. 

But the real points here go to Clare Higgins’ Julia.

hrclare by you. 

Julia is fiercely, unapologetically in lust with her husband’s brother, Frank. So much so that she zealously makes out with Frank’s squishy zombie body and Higgins totally sells it. 

hr julia frank by you. 

She quickly morphs from conscience-stricken and reluctant co-conspirator in Frank’s carnage (and her Lady Macbeth “out out damned spot” scene is one of the most convincing portrayals of that tired cliché)

hr lady macbeth by you. 

to blood-lusty temptress, and every second is credible and resonant. And, hell, fun. Julia makes it fun to be evil.

hr julia 2 by you. 

* Accordingly, Hellraiser has something that I find most horror films are tragically lacking: strong female characters. As a feminist, I try to avoid the typical “dumb girl gets butchered”/ “slutty girl gets punished” banality in the fright flicks I enjoy. Kirsty deftly outwits all of the men and the evil Cenobites in her life, and survives not because she is “innocent” and “pure”, but because she’s smart and strong.

hr kirsty 3 by you. 

Just look at that steely gaze!

kirsty steely eyed by you. 

Julia, well—she is slutty…

julia1 by you. 

(Why yes, that is her wedding dress on which she’s committing adultery with her soon-to-be brother in law)

and she does get punished (spoiler alert!),

julia2 by you. 

 but she does so with substance, smarts and panache.

  julia3 by you.

And all whilst remaining tremendously coiffed!

*But we all know what we’re really here for, right? The gore. And Hellraiser has it in spades. I won’t go into too much detail here, because gore is such a visceral, visual, have-to-see-it kind of thing, but Hellraiser does not disappoint on the blood and guts delivery, no sir.

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gore by you.

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To supplement the visual gore, the sound effects are especially gruesome and overt. Hellraiser is phonetically dripping with squishing, crackling and ripping. This makes the gore even more effective, since you can’t simply close your eyes to escape from it. The score further adds to the terror. Christopher Young composed a pulsing, swelling, potent soundtrack to the horrors onscreen. A kick-ass score is utterly vital to a great horror movie.

* Hellraiser can also claim sensational monsters. As far as raising the stakes, they don’t get much higher than trying to escape from sadomasochistic guardians of hell who will totally cross over to find your ass.

hr cenobites 2 by you. 

Pinhead is one especially terrifying dude. I don’t envy anyone who catches his attention, which in part explains my immense respect for Kirsty. She’s a surprisingly cool customer when faced with this:

pinhead by you. 

Uhm, how do you do? Pins? No, I’m not staring at your pins. What pins? 

* And finally, Hellraiser ends with a motherloving bang. The last 5 minutes are complex and riveting. I don’t want to give anything else away for future fans, but, as my friend Jerry claims, “Jesus wept” is one of the coolest lines in film. And what accompanies that excellent line? Even better.

So there you have it, friends: a formidable tutorial in what fundamentally composes a perfect horror film. Obviously, this pinnacle can be reached using entirely different methods; The Devil’s Backbone taught us that. But that, my dears, is another post. Until then!

 (Many thanks to www.cenobite.com, without whose thorough and outstanding collection of Hellraiser screenshots, this post would have been entirely text. Seriously, Hellraiser fanpersons, check it out.)


6 Responses to “Horrific Perfection”

  1. Excellent review. You really captured what makes Hellraiser such an incredible movie. Even though I just watched it a month ago, seeing all these images makes me want to give it another go. There’s just something about it that grabs your attention. It’s so cool that it makes you want to show it to other people who don’t even like horror films. That’s probably not a good idea though.

  2. ha ha, matt’s last line made me laugh cos YIIIIIKES!!! even just seeing the images on the computer screen gives me the heebie jeebies! but i guess that just proves yr point– hellraiser is the Real Thing.

    speaking as a huge weenie who really doesn’t like being scared, i actually gained a lot from reading yr review. because, even though i will still probably never EVER watch this movie, i now know *why* it’s good, and yr reasons totally make sense to me. thanks for breaking it down for all of the scaredy cats out there!!!

  3. Oooo, my curiosity is piqued! I shall watch it imminently. Good break down and great use of screenshots.

  4. I always liked Julie for her cool David Bowie portrayal. I have patterned many an evening’s outfit after her look.

    I’m so glad this blog exists!

  5. on the netflix queue! some of the effects look like super-cool high-speed camera work too!!

  6. Ah, a great article about a great movie. Do more of this!

    “Jesus Wept.”

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