Monday, December 15, 2014

Movie Review: Hellraiser (1987)

A few days ago I got rather interested in the Hellraiser franchise of films, in which people who toy with a magical puzzle-box summon the leather-clad Pinhead and friends, "explorers of the farther reaches of experience," whose idea of fun involves torture and sadomasochism (in which a good time is not had by all). So I decided to give the original Hellraiser a watch. Combined with my recent watch of Gremlins, it's turning into a very 1980s horror movie December.

Here goes...

The Plot

Married couple Larry and Julia Cotton move into an old house formerly owned by Larry's ne'er-do-well brother Frank, with whom Larry has not been in contact in some time. The reason for that is that Frank has solved a mysterious puzzle box and been dismembered. A moving-day accident spills blood on the floor of the upstairs room where Frank was taken and soon he's back as a flesh-eating skinless monster intent on restoring his human body with other people's blood. Trouble ensues, and Larry's daughter Kirsty soon finds that someone else is looking for Frank...

The Good

*The characterization is quite good. Within the first fifteen or so minutes, we know that the Cotton household isn't exactly a happy one and nobody says "I'm unhappy." Instead Larry and his wife Julia argue about moving into the new house, Larry and his daughter Kirsty argue about her decision to live on her own and have a job rather than living at home, and when she comes to visit we see some subtle hostility between her and Julia (whom a brief conversation between Larry and some workmen reveal is Kirsty's stepmother, not her mother). Julia's boredom at Larry's party just before she learns that Frank isn't quite as gone as she thinks shows that this is not a happy marriage and sets her up to be tempted by her back-from-the-dead brother-in-law.

However, though Julia is one of the villains of the piece, we see some sympathetic actions on her part--in flashback she initially resists Frank's advances (advances that come off as kind of rapey, no matter how much we later see her enjoying the results) and she quickly sees to Larry's welfare when he's injured. And when Frank wants to finish his resurrection by killing Larry, Julia is willing and able to fend him off. At least initially. And Frank--Frank is the Calvinist principle of total depravity in its most extreme form epitomized. Years in Hell haven't turned him off the path of selfishness, depravity, perversity, etc. and he's willing to commit all sorts of sins to ensure that he doesn't go back.

*The movie is genuinely creepy throughout, starting with the weird doings that start when Larry bleeds on the floor and then when the bored Julia returns to the room where Frank was taken to Hell and encounters, well, you'll have to see it. And then when Kirsty solves the box herself, things start getting scary again.

*Though the special effects are a bit dated in places, mediocre practical effects are, as a general rule, much better-looking than mediocre CGI. Frank's resurrection from the floorboards does look a bit puppety, but at least the viewer knows something is really there. And it's appropriately gruesome. Skinless resurrected-Frank looks pretty realistic.

*Although we don't see the Cenobites until rather late in the film--the resurrected Frank and Julia are the primary villains--it's still a suspenseful and well-done film regardless.

*Doug Bradley, the actor who plays Pinhead, has an amazingly deep voice and excellent delivery. No wonder they kept him on for the near-generation of sequels that followed.

The Bad

*The film shows its budgetary limitations in places. When Frank solves the box and the hooked chains come out, we see very little of what they do to him--only before and after shots. In contrast, when Capt. Elliott Spenser solves the box in the opening of Hellbound: Hellraiser II, we see a lot of hooked-chains-into-flesh and his transformation into Pinhead. According to Wikipedia, the first film had a budget of only $1 million (albeit in 1987 dollars), which could explain it.

*The movie should have ended a few minutes earlier, once Pinhead and friends find Frank. Granted, the awesome, "We have such sights to show you" line would need to be placed elsewhere or removed entirely, but good writing is about killing your darlings. Obviously some kind of resolution would need to happen, but the way the Cenobites go from, "This is not for your eyes" to doing what they do doesn't really make sense.

*Why didn't Julia try to use her own blood to finish reassembling Frank rather than jumping to murder? She immediately jumps from "unhappy wife" to "kill people" without any intermediate step (other than fear/hesitation when she brings the first man home). If she tried to use her own blood and it didn't work (perhaps the blood had to be forcibly taken, perhaps like Harry's blood used to resurrect Voldemort?) or Frank was in a hurry due to fear of the Cenobites finding him again and needed a lot of blood immediately, that would explain why she jumped to more extreme measures.

*The film starts out slowly--although we know from the prologue (Frank solving the puzzle box) that supernatural doings are afoot, until Larry cuts himself and the blood starts disappearing into the floor, it seems like a domestic drama.

*The resurrected Frank and Larry eventually encounter one another, but it's never seen. Given how they're estranged and Frank clearly has a great deal of contempt for Larry, this would have been interesting to see. And the results of this encounter, which we do see, strain credulity. Not going to go into detail for spoiler reasons, but you'll know it when you see it.

*It's not clear why Frank freaks out when Kirsty gets hold of the box. Is he afraid she'll solve it and bring in the Cenobites? He gets angry rather than relieved when she throws it out the window. Is he concerned for her safety? It seemed like he was intent on either feeding off her to finish his resurrection or molesting her, plus he was willing to kill his own brother for his blood, so familial loyalty isn't exactly his strong suite.

*There's a scene where Frank cuts up a rat with a knife where the rat looks like a toy. I'm not sure what the point was. And on the matter of rats the room where Frank was hiding was crawling with them, but he never tried to use their blood to restore his body. Given how he's desperate to get away before the Cenobites come looking for him, this could be shown by him chasing down and feeding on rats for what little regeneration something that small could provide. If only human blood will work, his trying and failing could give him a more rational reason for driving Julia to kill.

*There's a doctor character later in the film (just over an hour in) whose actions seem like their whole purpose is to drive the plot rather than something a doctor would realistically do. And Kirsty's actions soon afterward verge into horror-film-character stupidity. At the very least, I would expect a lot more hesitation mixed in with the curiosity once, you know, a gateway into what looks like another world appears in the wall!

*Kirsty's British boyfriend isn't well-developed. He's not in very many scenes and the movie might've been better off without him at all.

The Verdict

Creepy and generally well-done, but with some storytelling flaws. 8 out of 10.

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