Jaded Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) visits a Middle Eastern cafe to meet his contact who agrees to sell him a very particular kind of box. Returning to his family home, he sets up a makeshift camp in one upstairs room and sets about solving the riddle of the box, which eventually opens to let him experience the very limits of pain through supernatural means. Not long after, Frank's brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) arrives to stay at the house with his second wife Julia (Clare Higgins), but she's not keen until she finds evidence of Frank's presence - she previously had an affair with him, and her marriage is leaving her feeling claustrophobic. What she doesn't know is that Frank will soon be returning to her life in a big way...
Written by the director Clive Barker, and based on his novella, Hellraiser felt as if something fresh had arrived on the tired horror scene of the eighties with its deadly serious approach and elaborate special effects which served the story rather than the other way around. But seeing it now, it's clear it was still part of the horror cycle it once appeared to have broken away from: its effects represent a showcase for talented makeup personnel with a flair for gore, it features a young, female heroine who could have easily walked off the set of any Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the Thirteenth instalment, and it has a cunning villain - or in this case, set of villains - who started a franchise.
Having said that, Hellraiser still works well and is all the better for taking its terror with a grim state of mind. The best character for evil is the wicked stepmother, with the excellent Higgins an icy presence whose remarkably compliant entry into the world of corruption and depravity is more chilling than the actors heaving under the weight of their rubber appliances and leather costumes. When Larry cuts his hand on a nail while helping the removal men, he goes upstairs to find Julia in Frank's room, spilling blood as he does so. When they leave to get to a hospital, the blood causes what's left of Frank to be reborn in a superb sequence, and the trouble resumes.
Julia is naturally taken aback that her former lover is now a wasted skeleton, but she gets used to the idea pretty quickly when she sees Frank as a way out of her stifling relationship: how did that couple ever get together in the first place? It's a mystery. Unfortunately the way to get Frank to return to human form is to find human sacrifices, and Julia is forced to pick up unsuspecting men in bars, take them back to the house and kill them so that the apparition can be revitalised, in possibly the seediest part of the film. Meanwhile, her stepdaughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) is having her suspicions raised by Julia's strange behaviour, and it's not long before she has fallen into the terrible plot.
Adding to the sense of unreality is the fact that the film can't make up its mind whether it's set in Britain or the U.S.A. Higgins sports an upper class English accent, while Robinson and Laurence are Americans, and the supporting actors are a mixed bunch too considering the obviously British locations. Hailing from another dimension, the Cenobites are the main talking point, with their leader and spokesperson (Doug Bradley) decorated with nails driven into his bald head, although it's surprising how little they appear in the action, such is their impact. With a measure of dry wit (Julia tells Larry, "I've seen worse" when watching a televised boxing match she'd normally shy away from), just enough pretentiousness and a innovative premise that succeeds over the stagey presentation and some of the acting, Hellraiser is justifiably fondly remembered by its fans. Music by Christopher Young.
[Hellraiser has been released with its first two sequels by Anchor Bay as part of a special edition box set, featuring interviews, trailers, and two commentaries: one with Clive Barker, and the other with Barker, star Ashley Laurence and Peter Atkins. Also included in the box set are two early short films by Barker.]