Time has done little to lessen the visceral impact of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, a film that, after almost thirty years, still has the power to shock. As it was then, the film is nothing less than a very genuine attempt to reinject the stately baroque power of films like Tod Browning’s Dracula back into the horror genre, albeit updating the style in the process. It is a modern myth; an urban horror story with something very epic on its mind.
Its easy to forget after the string of sequels that ‘Pinhead’ is not one of Hellraiser’s central characters, or indeed even its main antagonist. The villain mantle is instead taken up by Julia Cotton, expertly played by Clare Higgins. Cotton is seduced by her husband’s brother into assisting him back into mortal form, after he meddled with the Cenobites and unlocked their puzzle box, a hellish object with the power to tear one’s soul apart.
Higgins turns in an extraordinary performance, managing to embrace the witch-like elements of her character, but also giving the role some sensitivity and power. She grounds her villainous actions in the real, meaning her devious machinations are given an added level of tension. Watching her pick up men in a bar with the knowledge that she is leading them to their doom – but all for the sake of love – pulls the audience in a myriad of interesting directions.
A lot of Hellraiser’s genius also comes from the interplay between the urban and the surreal; between the physical plane and the inferno of hell itself. Barker sees the fantastic as living within the ordinary, and the baroque visions of hell itself come to intertwine with 1980’s London and Morrocco in increasingly fascinating ways.
Clive Barker is an auteur in the truest sense of the word – he revisits similar concerns time and time again, adding layers to his thematic material every time – and Hellraiser is one of his very finest works. As deliriously divine as it is demented, it’s a film concerned with nothing less than the very basic tenets of humanity, with nothing less than the human soul.