Demons to Some, Angels to Others – Hellraiser (1987) Blu-ray

The feature filmmaking debut for up-and-coming author Clive Barker, Hellraiser represented an attempt to produce what we might now call an elevated slasher movie. That was a risky proposition to deliver into a cinema landscape dominated by jokey genre schlock at the time. Amazingly, despite initially mixed reviews and modest box office returns, the little British fright flick made for less than $1 million not only endured as a horror classic, but spawned a long-running franchise of sequels and spin-offs that continues to this day.

Truth be told, none of its follow-ups has ever quite lived up to the original Hellraiser. In my opinion, even the best of them (the immediate sequel, 1988’s Hellbound: Hellraiser II) is a pale shadow of this one, and everything afterward dives into a steep downhill trajectory. Looking back on it now, even Hellraiser itself is clearly burdened by the limitations of its low budget and inexperienced director. Nevertheless, Barker delivered a vision that remains potent more than three decades later.

Hellraiser 1987 - Larry & Julia
Year of Release: 1987
Director: Clive Barker
Watched On: Blu-ray
Also Available On: Amazon Prime Video
Various VOD rental and purchase platforms

Clive Barker burst upon the horror scene in 1984-1985 with a series of six short story collections called The Books of Blood, followed quickly by his first novel, The Damnation Game. Vividly imagined and eloquently written, those early works made an immediate splash, and Stephen King famously called Barker “the future of horror.” Recognizing a talent on the rise, movie producers wanted a piece of the action, but unfortunately had no idea how to handle his material. Although technically based on Barker stories, Underworld (a.k.a. Transmutations, 1985) and Rawhead Rex (1986) both amounted to low-budget cheesefests.

Frustrated by these experiences, Barker had enough ambition to write and direct a film version of his novella The Hellbound Heart on his own, with a very modest amount of financial backing from American studio New World Pictures. The resultant movie, called Hellraiser, debuted in 1987 to rave reviews from some critics and scathing indictments from others. Roger Ebert, in particular, truly loathed it.

The divisive reaction largely had to do with the way the movie delves into dark realms of sexual fetishism and sadomasochism in a way that made some viewers very uncomfortable. When it comes down to it, most horror movies, especially the slasher variety, present simplified and heavy-handed notions of sexual morality – e.g. teenagers have sex and are immediately punished for it. Hellraiser, on the other hand, suggests that some people actually seek out pain and punishment as a form of sexual gratification in itself.

The first scenes set a tone conflating filth and desire. The film opens with the character of Frank (Sean Chapman), a handsome but very sweaty and dirty man with fingernails caked in grime, searching seedy corners of the globe on a quest to experience the extremes of deviant sensuality. This leads him into possession of a supernatural puzzle box that promises to open a gateway into a new dimension where pain and pleasure are indistinguishable. The only problem is that, once that doorway is unlocked, its guardians – demonic beings called Cenobites – have a firm “No Backsies” policy. As soon as you open the box, you’re theirs forever, trapped for an eternity of torment and suffering, which Frank soon realizes isn’t nearly as much fun as it sounds.

What follows could almost be categorized as a haunted house tale. After Frank disappears, his milquetoast brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and wife Julia (Clare Higgins) take over the house they believe Frank abandoned. Despite its current wretched condition, Larry sees potential in the property as a happy family home and is eager to invite Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), his daughter from a previous marriage, to visit. None of them realizes at first that Frank is actually still in the house – or at least pieces of him are.

Hellraiser 1987 - Frank

Also unbeknownst to the clueless Larry, Julia once had a torrid affair with Frank and remains obsessed with him. When an accidental blood spill pulls Frank back from hell, he reveals himself to her and demands her help. Seeing him again, even only partially resurrected as a skeletal frame covered in gooey tissue and exposed muscle, is enough to re-ignite her lust. Needing more blood to complete the transformation back to human form, Frank convinces Julia to bring him a fresh supply by seducing gullible men, luring them back to the house, and murdering them for him to consume. She complies, reluctantly at first, but grows bolder with each transgression. For a while, it seems like their plan could work, until Julia’s sketchy behavior triggers the suspicions of stepdaughter Kirsty, whose meddling may inadvertently draw the attention of the Cenobites.

Confined mostly to a single primary location and a small handful of characters, Hellraiser is clearly a low-budget production. The film is further weakened by some very poor optical effects, a cheesy monster foisted in at the climax, and a fair bit of soap opera-ish acting. Positioned as the story’s hero, Kirsty is kind of an idiot at times, and a superfluous boyfriend character feels like he was only included at the insistence of the distributor.

Revisiting it now, Hellraiser may not be the horror masterpiece its reputation would suggest. However, most of its failings can be forgiven as the learning curve of a first-time director working with too little money to properly execute his vision, and too much reluctance to push back against a studio willing to chip in with some funding he desperately needed.

All that said, the film is stylishly directed within its limitations, and its terrific makeup and gore effects hold up well. Even if he couldn’t avoid falling back on a few tired genre tropes, Barker resists the temptation to lapse into lazy puns and dumb comic relief like so many other horror movies of the day. The filmmaker took this project seriously. That intention comes through in the finished work and is much appreciated.

Where Hellraiser definitely succeeds, and the reason it’s so often held up as a superlative example of the genre, is Barker’s creation of the Cenobites, especially the here-unnamed leader (coined “Pinhead” by fans and later canonized as such in the sequels) played by Doug Bradley. Decked out in S&M fetish gear and painful-looking body modifications, the Cenobites are not monsters, per se. They don’t come unless invited, and their purpose is to fulfill the summoner’s darkest desires. But in doing so, they have very strict rules they must enforce.

Mysterious, intimidating and, yes, rather kinky, the Cenobites became instant horror icons. The irony, sadly, is that they’re so compelling any fan will of course want more of them, yet by indulging that wish, the numerous sequels have only managed to demystify them, dilute their effectiveness, and inevitably turn them into the type of campy genre clichés the original film worked so hard to counter.

Hellraiser (1987) - Pinhead & Kirsty

The Blu-ray

Hellraiser has been released on Blu-ray a few times. The earliest was a 2009 disc from Anchor Bay Entertainment that was quite respectable for its time, with both a good video transfer and a fair selection of bonus features. In 2011, Image Entertainment put out a second Blu-ray edition that reportedly had slightly inferior video quality. (I’ve never seen that one.)

The prestige boutique label Arrow Video later stepped up with a remastered Blu-ray that first appeared in 2016, bundled with the first two sequels in an elaborately-packaged collection called Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box. The original film was then broken out on its own for a Limited Edition SteelBook (the copy I have) in 2017, followed in 2019 by a Special Edition in a regular keepcase. All three copies from Arrow represent the same disc, just in different packaging configurations.

Arrow has a reputation among Blu-ray fans as being a British equivalent to the Criterion Collection, but with more of a focus (though not exclusively so) on cult and horror titles. When the news first broke that Arrow would tackle the horror classic Hellraiser, that announcement was met with some excitement. Upon release, the disc received enthusiastic reviews. I was quite happy to upgrade my Blu-ray and file the old Anchor Bay copy away in a box where I assumed I’d never need to pull it out again.

Looking at it now, however, I have mixed feelings. Like a few other Arrow releases I could cite, the label’s edition of Hellraiser seems to be a case of many good intentions crossed with some debatable decisions in execution.

Hellraiser (1987) Blu-ray SteelBook

Boasting a “2K restoration” approved by cinematographer Robin Vidgeon, the Arrow Blu-ray is notably sharper and more detailed than the Anchor Bay disc. This is very pleasing in many ways, but grain is also much more prominent and sharply defined, sometimes distractingly so. In some scenes, it looks more like mosquito noise, which may be a side effect of the label trying to compress too much content onto one disc. (More on that shortly.)

The bigger problem is that the 1.85:1 image is also significantly brighter than older transfer. In my opinion, it’s definitely too bright. A horror movie like this thrives in darkness. The brighter picture looks flatter and a little washed-out. It also exposes seams in the makeup and gore effects that ought to be hidden in shadow, and the bright red blood looks more obviously fake.

Some aspects of the Arrow transfer are superior to the Anchor Bay disc, but the overcranked brightness is very bothersome all through the movie. On balance, I think I prefer the look of the Anchor Bay edition. Viewed on its own, that disc looks plenty sharp with more natural (less exaggerated) grain texture, and its richer colors and contrast are more pleasing to the eye.

At the time of this writing, Hellraiser has not yet been upgraded to 4K Ultra HD anywhere in the world. When that eventually happens (whether from Arrow or some other label), I hope that the excuse of needing a new HDR grade will provide enough opportunity for someone to fix the brightness and contrast levels.

Hellraiser (1987) Comparison - Anchor BayHellraiser (1987) Comparison - Arrow Video

The Arrow disc provides the movie’s soundtrack in a choice of PCM stereo or DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The stereo track is the playback default and has been given prominence in the disc menus, which leads me to assume that Arrow put the most effort into that one, while the 5.1 mix was licensed from a previous distributor. The 1987 film played theatrically in Dolby Stereo, in any case. Both options represent the Americanized soundtrack, in which some of the actors were noticeably overdubbed to remove their British accents at the insistence of distributor New World Pictures. As far as I’m aware, no version of the movie has ever restored the original British voices.

The stereo track is louder and perhaps a little too bright. It also has some evident hiss. However, it has more life and sounds more robust than the cleaner but much flatter and duller 5.1 option. Neither has all that much surround activity or dynamic range. After comparing a few scenes, I settled on the stereo mix to finish the movie. (Sadly, the Anchor Bay disc only has the 5.1 version.)

In addition to the movie itself, Arrow loads quite a bit of supplemental material onto a single Blu-ray, perhaps too much. We start with two audio commentaries. The first is a Clive Barker solo track that dates back to the Laserdisc era. The other – featuring Barker, star Ashley Laurence, and screenwriter Peter Atkins – has also been around the block a few times, at least as far back as a DVD release from 2000, if not earlier. After that are an 89-minute documentary, a 26-minute interview with actor Sean Chapman (Frank), and a 16-minute featurette about the abandoned musical score from alternative band Coil. Duplicated from the Anchor Bay disc are additional interviews, EPK featurettes, trailers, and TV spots.

All told, that makes over two hours of HD video content and another hour of SD content crammed onto the same disc as the movie. Most of it has stuttery video and very hissy audio that sounds like a badly compressed MP3. How much their inclusion may have compromised the main film is unclear. Regardless, the release would have been much better served had most of these features been moved to a second disc and left some extra space for the movie to breathe.

Not carried over from the Anchor Bay Blu-ray (or earlier DVDs, where they originated) are further interviews with composer Christopher Young and stars Andrew Robinson and Ashley Laurence.


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