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Movie Review : 'Hellraiser': Intelligent It Is, Tasteful It's Not

September 18, 1987|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

Clive Barker's "Hellraiser" (citywide) is one of the more original and memorable horror movies of the year: a genuinely scary, but also nearly stomach-turning experience by a genre specialist who seemingly wallows in excess and loves pushing conventions to their ghastly limits.

"Hellraiser" is adapted from Barker's short story "The Hell-Bound Heart," and he uses it for his debut as writer-director. It's a relatively modestly scaled story--with lots of effects but limited settings--in which we watch a typical, and well-acted, bourgeois household, the Cottons, sink into depravity and murder, dragged there by the family black sheep, Uncle Frank (Sean Chapman).

Frank is presented as an amoral adventurer and sexual libertine, the flip side of his settled, somewhat dull brother Larry (Andrew Robinson), and also the seducer of his sister-in-law, Julia (Clare Higgins). Somehow, in some exotic locale, Frank has attained a mystical puzzle box and has stumbled into the ultimate nasty kick: supernatural sadomasochism. This habit has pulled his rotting soul and ravaged body down to the Underworld.

When the Cottons--along with daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence)--move back into the London family house, some spilled blood summons Frank back--a peeled-raw version of him that's mostly bloody ganglia, bare gristle and stripped muscle, sticking to the Giacometti-like bones; a Frank hungry for blood and still the vile seducer, enlisting Julia into his cannibalistic schemes. And also a Frank pursued by the Devils who run the franchise--and want him back.

"Hellraiser" is intelligent and brutally imaginative--but it's definitely not tasteful or low-key. It's less an ultra-literate horror film than a violently self-conscious one. When Barker moves into his specialties--the mingling of terror and perverse sexuality, the images of human or monster bodies stripped raw--he's flagrantly flaunting the taboos, demonstrating his sexual radicalism. In "Hellraiser," he's working not only out of our fear of the dead, but taking it a step further: into fear of sex with the dead, and a kind of satanically escalated kink. This mixture of obscenity and terror gives the movie an appalling, ghoulish force.

Barker--an illustrator as well as a novelist and playwright--has visual gifts in addition to literary ones, a genuinely macabre graphic imagination. Aided by production designer Mike Buchanan, makeup effects designer Bob Keen and cinematographer Robin Vidgeon, he creates some spectacularly eerie effects: Frank's sepulchral remnants writhing up hideously from the bare floorboards; the flipped-out demon gallery, including a shapeless hulk in shades and another with pins traversing his high cheekbones; and a lunatic crucifixion scene.

But the basic problem with "Hellraiser" is one of balance. Unlike Cronenberg's "Videodrome" and "The Fly," where horrific images are played against more humane sentiments, Barker--perhaps because shock is easiest for a beginning film maker--too often seems to be scraping bloody tongue against gory cheek. "Hellraiser" will be a hideous treat for the hard-core, nearly unshockable audience that's ready for it; those of more tender tastes may have to wait until Barker's radical sensibility catches up to his viciously adroit visual expertise.

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