"Some things have to be endured and that's what makes the pleasure so sweet."
That's what one of the characters says in Clive Barker's "Hellraiser," and he might as well be talking about the first film written and directed by this new enfant terrible of the horror genre. The British Barker is best known here for "The Books of Blood," six volumes of shockingly perverse stories, and for the praise heaped on him by the reigning enfant terrible of the horror genre, Stephen King, who said, "I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker."
It took Bruce Springsteen years to overcome that kind of hype on the rock 'n' roll front; Barker is at best a future, not the future. "Hellraiser" certainly won't cement his reputation. It's a dark, frequently disturbing and occasionally terrifying film that suggests Barker's vision hasn't quite made the conversion from paper to celluloid.
Barker had written scripts for two other films based on his stories, but he was so dismayed by how "Underworld" and "Rawhead Rex" were realized that on this go-round, he held out for the director's chair (and production control for his friend Christopher Figg). New World, the company started by B-picture king Roger Corman, was impressed enough to join Barker and Figg in the risk-taking process.
"Hellraiser" is certainly a cut or two above the slasher films that seem to proliferate on Friday the 13ths and Halloweens. It's a decidedly adult picture, with some disquieting sexual tensions that simply wouldn't work with the usual teen crew. It's also a treatise on the thin line between pleasure and pain and how easily crossed it can be.
Thefilm opens with American Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) procuring an ancient carved puzzle box. Frank is a pleasure seeker, a self-obsessed hedonist, and no sooner does he solve the puzzle than he ... well, comes apart at the seams and is consigned to a netherworld between the floors of his London house.
A few years later, brother Larry (Andrew Robinson, best known as the psycho in "Dirty Harry") moves in with his new British-born wife Julia (Clare Higgins) and Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), his daughter from a previous marriage. Right away, Julia doesn't like the house. Imagine her surprise when the torrents of blood from a deep cut on Larry's hand drip through the cracks in the floorboard and resurrect Frank, with whom she'd once had a tempestuous affair.
Imagine Julia's further surprise when Frank reconstructs (good scene, this one) and comes back a bundle of bone, blood and sinew. Skinless. "Don't look at me," he begs Julia, but she, like the audience, just stares.
It's a typical Barker twist that finds Julia fascinated, and aroused, by Frank's indelicate condition. If he looks like hell, it's because he's been there, and now he's come back. Frank tells her how his sensual obsessions led him to unleash the four Cenobites, ghastly out-of-time creatures dedicated to the pleasure principle, and how they made him pay for his inquisitiveness. ("We're demons to some, angels to others," one of them says.)
It's Larry's blood that has sprung Frank from his purgatory, and a need for more of the same that soon sends others to theirs. To continue his reconstruction, Frank enlists Julia as an accomplice: She picks up traveling salesmen in local bars, entices them home with the promise of sexual encounters, then bashes their heads in with a hammer. "Every drop of blood you spill puts flesh on my bones," Frank tells her.
During all this, Julia shows little resistance to Frank's sloppy advances, but is increasingly cool to Larry, a yuppie nerd who doesn't even notice the corpses in the attic.
Meanwhile, Kirsty stumbles onto the truth (literally), escapes with the puzzle box and accidentally raises the Cenobites, who then refuse to leave empty-handed. "No tears, please," they tell her. "It's a waste of good suffering." Unlike most teen-agers in genre movies, Kirsty is quick-thinking, and she cuts a deal that could send Frank back to square one.
Up to this point, Barker has done his best to instill genuine fear and loathing in the audience. There are some weaknesses, particularly the framing of close-ups and the generic score, but there are some moments of genuinely inventive gore. But "Hellraiser" falls apart at its climax, degenerating to a surprisingly lame ending full of special effects and triumphant good.
In its best moments, the film's visuals complement Barker's writing, but they seldom achieve the same visceral impact. A scene of metal hooks piercing Frank's flesh is gory and painful to watch, but Barker's stories tend to be even more unbearable to read. He's still a man of verbal images, and the meld of sex and horror is even more perverse and disturbing in his stories than in this film.
Thenagain, this is his first film, and it's a lot more accomplished than Stephen King's directorial debut, "Maximum Overdrive." Next time out, Clive Barker just might scare some folks to death.
Hellraiser, at area theaters, is rated R and contains some suggestive material and extreme violence.