Fighting in Vein
A Blu-ray review of HELLRAISER (with a pre-review muse and dissection of horror then and now).
Film review and musings by Camus, sound and vision, extras and summary by Slarek
 
"How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?"
A question from the Middle Ages

 

In the 70s, movies were classified with an 'X' rating if they were deemed too sexual or too horrific to be endured by minors. An 'AA' certificate (to enter the cinema, you had to be fourteen or over) represented some sort of pre-teen quest when movie fans like myself hadn't yet reached that age. But the 'X' was a place I was not only lawfully barred from but it symbolized a realm of cinema that I grew up with, wondering if I would ever have the heart and stomach to suffer its agonies. As far as ecstasies went, in my home city there was a pre-VHS cinema incongruously named The Prince of Wales for those who needed to sate hand on organ appetites (and I'm not talking about musical accompaniment to silent pictures).

There were horror movies out there with 'X' certificates and as a mid-teen, I demonised them out of some proportion. I really believed these movies could harm me in some way. To put this into another perspective; the mutilated face of Vincent Price's Abominable Dr. Phibes was terrifying to me as a child and its reveal caused me real dread. Today, that face or something like it, is as innocuous as daytime TV and water off under-teen's backs. I honestly can't figure out if I was deprived of something or if today there's simply too much stuff that generates the ubiquitous 'whatever' response.

It was only when I saw my first 'X', the appropriately titled The Exorcist, did I believe that perhaps some movies were only suited for the more mature palettes (for mature, read 'deaf and blind blocks of stone'). Friedkin's masterpiece scared the colossal bejesus out of me – as my friend eloquently put it, in a thick South Wales accent, "I wuz shittin' bricks, mun!" Cut to twenty-five years later (a story I first told in my comparison reviews for the two Exorcist IVs) in a now lamented Woolworths and a few teenage girls are discussing movies on DVD as I eavesdrop. The Exorcist is picked up and one of the girls proclaims "I've seen it. It's crap." God, I wished I'd had a Tardis and could have deposited her in a mid-70s cinema showing a print of Merrin's battle with Pazazou. Again, context is all. I have no startling wish to inflict cruelty on children but I wanted the power of that film to reassert itself against the nonchalance and 'whatever' of the 'all is available to me and I'm so cool, it doesn't get near me' generation. It is a constant puzzle to me that we regard 'cool' so highly when one definition of it is applied detachment. Why be alive if you want to stay detached?

There are only a few movies that have set up a demonic shop in my subconscious and The Exorcist is their granddaddy. How many Saws and sequels of same could offer the image of a crucifix defiling a female pre-teen's genitals and solder that sight into your mind? Let's not forget the accompanying words hurled as abuse at her own body. Today's body-horrors are amateur wannabes. Yes, they're horrific but for true horror you have to return to the cinema of ideas. It's a testament to your own imagination as well as the perversity of the film-maker, that make certain horror movies so damaging. To that list I add Hellraiser not least because a recent viewing (I'm 48, for chrissakes) had me scared to take a pee at work on a Sunday night because the corridor en route to the loo was in the dark. I offer the following, perhaps greater embarrassment as proof of the dominance of horror in the mid-70s and the mind of the suggestible teen.

I have to confess to enacting a truly despicable way to approach a horror film. I cut it off at the knees because I was genuinely too bloody scared to see it. There was a film, infamous for its effect and trauma inducing narrative. It was nestled in my head as the ultimate in horror and I was drawn to it like Augustus Gloop to the chocolate factory. I was too timid (scared, OK) to pay for a ticket and endure it sans protection so I took advantage of a passing relationship with the projectionist and watched it for the very first time separated by a small pane of thick glass and a soundtrack muffled by the mechanical click-clickings of the 35mm projector. And to this day, the event (for it was all of an event) of seeing this film unfettered by the helplessness of being in the audience, still scared and scarred me. It was a truly terrifying movie, its effect on me unphased by the following sentence from the projectionist at the time; "It wasn't set in Texas and they probably didn't use chainsaws. And it wasn't a massacre."

It was only after my breathless reaction to Tobe Hooper's masterpiece that I learned that serial killer Ed Gein (the lovely gentleman who inspired Hitchcock's Psycho) was probably the seminal fluid leading to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's lurid birth. But there was a relentless quality to the film-making that astonished me. Yes, you didn't see much (the meat hook scene still chills me) but it was the movie's reputation married to a teenage imagination that made the experience so extraordinary. By gore standards today, it's comparatively tame. What it had, like a missile encased in sloughed off skin, was a purpose. It was a film that was unyielding in its simple desire to scare the shit out of you by showing you people with the morality of sewer rats and the sanity and grace of Robert Mugabe (but the family stayed together so that's a plus). Today's gore-fests are just that. Oh! Look what just happened to him, yuck! Who cares? I was the girl in that rank southern house being battered by gramps. I see her blood soaked and by now quite insane face and it's like looking into a mirror.

Not too many film-makers could wrest the baton from Tobe Hooper but one did. Overtly criticised for his choice of genre as much as his command of same, was a Canadian who really shook the horror genre by the scruff of the neck. This man made me aware that horror was a genre of intellect and ideas. Henceforth (how biblical is that?) all my horror movies could be seen as being experienced BC. Before Cronenberg. David Cronenberg's 'shape of rage' introduced me to a cinema that could be scary and thoughtful and from Shivers onward, I saw the genre in a new light (admittedly I was spurred on my the disgust in Barry Norman's put down review). You could say things about the human condition in the context of horror and have it be as enlightening as a Buddhist text splashed with warm blood. Author and debut director Clive Barker grasped the nettle and made a movie that cried out subtexturally and yet still satisfied the gore-hounds. Horror is essentially the fear of and the actual destruction of the body. Barker built his antihero's back up and made us feel every excruciating slurp and penetration.

Hellraiser has a relatively simple premise. Frank, presumably unsatisfied and unsated by earthly pursuits, desires the ultimate in pleasure/pain and ventures into a sadistic realm via a small, golden Rubik's-like cube. He is torn to pieces within five minutes in an empty room and his still-living remains are re-assembled by a demon that came to be known as 'Pinhead'. His name is a giveaway. Cut to Frank's brother, Larry, and his reclamation of the family's old house. We know that Frank's wife, Julia, had an affair with Frank and it's that physical experience of utter abandonment that has consumed her to the point of (some may argue) unreasonableness via a number of murderous hammer blows. Blood is spilled and Frank's soul physically sprouts from the floorboards in a make up effects extravaganza that, in its time, was an eye watering special effect. I mean, this guy rebuilds himself, vein by vein, muscle by muscle, in front of our eyes. It's a startling creation. Julia has to lure men to murder them in order to get Frank to feed and to become physically human again.

Love and money; they're the roots and banal causes of the greater percentage of almost every trespass from the moral path. What Barker pursues here is the idea that physical love or even need will compel someone to do anything to have that need satisfied, It's a well worn idea given literal new life by a horror maestro. Barker, despite a limited budget, a few sets and a brave stab at prosthetic flesh rending and the creation of some startling creatures, comes up trumps. His is a unique work that asks as much from its audience as it does satisfy the hardcore. If you want a deeper reading, it's all there; the cuckold's worst nightmare growing in the room upstairs; a wife who will go to any length to satisfy her own inner demons; innocence corrupted and then standing tall in the face of the unknown. Even Freud would come out of Hellraiser whistling in wonder at its levels of interpretation.

Criminally overlooked in this genre is an appreciation of the talent it takes to make this stuff vaguely credible. If it's scary that's one thing; but to care you have to believe, albeit for 90 minutes, that what's happening is real to the protagonists. Claire Higgins as Julia does a superb job in convincing me that the love and ownership of a man - now only in her memory as he starts to regenerate from the bones up – is so powerful that she would pretend to seduce strangers and then reign down on them with a hammer. It takes some skill to make this stuff work. Ably abetting her in his enforced ordinariness is her husband played at first with a straight nice-guy goody dad 'can't stand the sight of blood' vibe by Outsider favourite Andrew Robinson. The fact he gets a chance to do what he does best in the last act of the movie is a delayed treat. Robinson, of course, was the sniper in Dirty Harry and the venal but secretive Garak in Star Trek Deep Space Nine. He does creepy in his sleep and is especially good at illustrating with very little, the joy his characters get from being utterly sociopathic. Doing an admirable job whilst swathed in eerily convincing skinless body stages is Oliver Smith playing Frank resurrected.

Rounding up the acting talent is a nod to the 80s ideal of young and sexy (big hair!) is Ashley Laurence as Kirsty, the daughter (importantly the step-daughter to Julia). In some ways she has the hardest part playing 'us'. She does what we'd do if confronted by the horrors she runs into – scream and run away. Well, that's what I'd do. Her grounded and honest performance keeps us and the movie on the right tracks. It also shows up her boyfriend's lack of acting experience. His performance, like his character, is a little wooden. The Cenobites have gained some notoriety since the 80s. Cenobite No. 1 (afterwards renamed 'Pinhead') played by Doug Bradley took on the same career shift as happened to Jeremy Bulloch after his turn as Boba Fett. He suddenly became famous for a relatively small role but in an iconic series of films. Bradley does relish very well and commands the screen effortlessly. And if you're bad he will tear your soul apart. Something to think about.

Hey, you may say, who goes to see a movie called Hellraiser and worries about the acting? I do. And if a horror film is made with as much care and attention to character as this one, then horror need not be synonymous with ephemeral and dumb. As soon as I set up my 'n'th viewing, Christopher Young's sophisticated score came right back to me and I was suddenly in that dingy room with the unspeakable hidden in the shadows. Young's work highlights today's paucity of good soundtracks. I was shocked at how well I knew the score and it's one of a very few favoured movie score I don't own, something I will rectify.

A million didn't buy you a lot even in 1987 but given that I think Barker is right in a recent interview that sophisticated CG wouldn't have improved on the terrific if sometimes not entirely convincing effects of Bob Keen. His design work is first rate and his practical work stands up even by today's standards. Artful cutting helps to sell the less effective effects but the 'monster' Frank is an effects gem. He's always convincing and given that you could not take away anything from an actor (except by involuntary surgery), only add in make up terms, it's remarkable they created a creature that is believably building himself up from the blood and viscera of others. Frank's make-up/model/actor effects are the antithesis of ILM's stunning work on Sam Worthington in Terminator Salvation. CG lets you 'delete' some of your actors and his half man, half cyborg is never less than 100 percent convincing. But again, just in style and feel, CG would seem out of place in Barker's all too physical world. Barker's is a realm of reality despite the fantastic elements, notably the Cenobite's horrific world. I'm not into sadomasochism myself though that's not a criticism of those who enjoy it. The idea of pain (the worst aspect of evolution in my book – what's wrong with a neon sign?) is something far removed from pleasure but maybe they do meet and conjoin where the Cenobites live.

Hellraiser is that rare breed – a horror film with intelligence, wit, profundity and irreverence. What more do you need to know?

sound and vision

I'm not sure why I should be surprised by how good Hellraiser looks here, but I am. Perhaps its that that 'low budget' label we're used to making allowances for, but more likely it's the memory of its first UK DVD incarnation, the sort pictorially grubby affair that tarnished the image of this supposedly superior home video format. I missed out on Anchor Bay's gloriously packaged Hellraiser Puzzle Box Set (I'm not sure whu - I'm not a big fan of the sequels, but the box alone really would justify the now heavily discounted purchase price), which I gather was a considerable improvement. But to jump from that first DVD release to this new Blu-ray edition is a real eye-opener. The budget may have been low, but there was clearly nothing wrong with the film stock or camera equipment used – the images are sharp, definitely a few notches up from the average DVD transfer, and the colours are rich without over-saturation, particularly the primes. Contrast is particularly well balanced, providing plenty of shadow detail – very important in a horror movie with night scenes and gothic elements – without compromising the black levels.

The only non-commentary soundtrack option is Dolby TrueHD 5.1, which is basically an HD version of the 5.1 and DTS tracks on the box set, but that's not a complaint. A very clear mix with a strong dynamic range, it makes good use of the entire sound stage, using the surrounds for specific effects and location astmospherics and spreading Christopher Young's score around the room in a manner that really enhances the creep-out factor.

A special mention should also go to the menus, which are very nicely designed and most in-keeping with the film's imagery. Even the fast-forward timeline has been appropriately designed.

extra features

Commentary with Clive Barker and Ashley Lawrence, moderated by screenwriter Peter Atkins
I'm guessing this is a commentary ported over from the 2004 box set, but I'm not complaining, as for the most part it's a good one, despite Barker's habit of describing what's on screen or the more obvious aspects of character motivation. He does, though, in the American accent he's cultivated in his time in LA, provide some interesting background on his influences (Argento is a key one), on the technical aspects and on the locations and casting, and he shares memories with Lawrence of the shoot and provides a small window into his thinking on key elements. Atkins proves a decent moderator and contributes a fair bit himself – he and Barker go way back and although he wasn't directly involved in the production of this film, he did write the first three sequels.

Fast Facts
A textual fact track with nice graphics and random screen positioning that intermittently pops up during the film to toss in some trivia about the scene, shot or character in question. Its frequency of appearance varies considerably and many of the facts themselves are covered in more detail in the commentary or interviews, but the odd few should still prove interesting to newcomers.

The rest of the extra features are all 480p and have a very low resolution look and plenty iof compression artefacts on areas of single colour.

Mr. Cotton, I Presume? An Interview with star Andrew Robinson (16:13)
A welcome interview with the splendid Mr. Robinson, who discusses his scene-stealing first film role in Dirty Harry and his work on Hellraiser with undisguised enthusiasm for his craft. A consistently enjoyable and aleways interesting chat, not least when he describes Don Seigel as "by far, I mean by far, the best fucking director I have ever worked with." Take a bow, Don.

Actress From Hell – An Interview with star Ashley Lawrence (11:58)
Bookended by a mildly amusing ditzy actress piss-take, this is another extra I'm sure has been taken from the box set, given that Lawrence talks about not just landing the role and playing in this film, but also the sequels, which she was clearly less impressed with. A lively and enjoyable inclusion.

Hellcomposer – An Interview with composer Christopher Young (18:19)
After an enthusiastic but slightly performed description of his introduction to film music, Young talks specifically about his work on the film and his approach to the score, and is generous in his crediting of Barker's own input.

Hellraiser: Ressurection (24:25)
A retrospective documentary lifted from the box set in which many of the key participants on both sides of the camera are interviewed about the film and their experience working on it. Stories about the film's conception and the landing of roles are repeated elsewhere, but there's plenty that isn't, with Simon Bamford's tales of makeup-up application and over-energetic co-workers proving the most entertaining. Barker tellingly opens with an irate "This is the last time I will talk about this sonofabitch movie."

Under the Skin: Doug Bradley on Hellraiser (12:32)
Actor Doug Bradley engagingly talks about playing Pinhead, the process of applying and living with the makeup, his long history with Barker and his relationship with him as a director, his reading of the film's themes  and his surprise at the cult following his character developed.

Three Trailers have been included, the US R-rated Trailer (1:29), which is in fine shape, the US G-Rated Trailer (1:34), which is 4:3 and has been rescued from what looks like VHS, the  International Trailer (3:28), which also looks like a VHS rescue but includes a couple of shots that were cut from the finished film, though is saddled with the tagline "Satan's done waintin'." There are also four TV spots (0:32 each), which are more varied in content than usual for such a collection.

Finally, there are four Stills Galleries. Behind the Scenes (3:16) is interesting but the quality of the images is weak – I've seen some of these pictures elsewhere and they looked a hell of a lot better than this. Unfortunately it's the same story for Makeup and Effects Photos (2:24), Promotional Material (1:52) and Storyboards (3:03), that last of which are too fuzzy to make out any of Barker's hand written descriptions, despite the boards themselves being almost the height of the screen. Though it's nice to have these, this is a Blu-ray disc, guys, and if you can't make still images look sharp...

summary

I think Camus has said it all above, but I'd like to second the particular thrill that the physical nature of the effects provide, which Barker himself admits would simply not have the same texture if done with CGI, something we'll no doubt be witnessing some time in 2011 when the inevitable and frankly unwelcome remake hits our screens. Thanks, but I'm perfectly happy with the original and don't need to see it creatively castrated for the MTV audience. As for the Blu-ray, well hardcore fans will probably have most of the extras anyway, given that they appear to have been largely ported over from the DVD box set, but for the picture quality and soundtrack this still has to come recommended.

Hellraiser

UK 1987
94 mins
director
Clive Barker
starring
Max von Sydow
Clare Higgins
Ashley Laurence
Sean Chapman
Oliver Smith
Robert Hines

disc details
region code not specified
video
1.85:1
sound
Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
Spanish
extras
Clive Barker and Ahsley Lawrence commentary
Fact track
Andrew Robinson interview
Ashley Lawrence interview
Christopher Young interview
Hellraiser: Ressurection documentary
Doug Bradley interview
Trailers
TV spots
Stills galleries
distributor
Anchor Bay
release date
20 July 2009
review posted
18 July 2009