‘Hellraiser’ – How the Original Horror Classic Was a Gateway to More Extreme Horror

Horror fans have a term used to describe films that are great entry points into the genre for the younger set and nascent fans – gateway horror. These gateway films are well executed, but are mostly devoid of anything too violent, subversive, or extreme for a young fan’s eyes.

With a world as vast as the horror genre however, there are other gateways to walk through. Sometimes you seek out these gateways with an idea of what you’re getting into once you pass through. Other times you stumble into them, completely oblivious to the dark delights that await beyond.

Clive Barker’s original Hellraiser is one such film for me – a film I consider a gateway to exploring the more extreme and graphic side of the horror genre.

I had first seen Hellraiser during my burgeoning obsession with horror movies. I had seen plenty of violent films before, and plenty of gore – one of the perks of having parents who didn’t pay all that much attention to what you watched. I grew up on the Alien films, the Predator films, violent action films such as your Die Hards, Lethal Weapons, and the like. My new love for horror had me blazing through the big names in the slasher game.

I was growing up as the analog age was in its dying days. We had one foot in the old, one foot in the new. I still remember corded phones, answering machines, VHS and VCR, pagers, phone booths, smoking areas in restaurants, etc. The Internet was just becoming a thing, and computers weren’t a ubiquitous household item for everyone yet.

It’s during this specific period where the horror icons of the 70s and 80s felt like real-deal boogeymen. I knew these characters by name, not by the title of the franchises. As a kid, there wasn’t Friday the 13th, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Halloween, or Child’s Play…there was only Jason, Freddy, Michael, and Chucky. You hear rumblings and whispers about these guys at school, hanging out with friends on the weekend, or during a sleepover. These figures were already mythic and iconic long before I ever clapped my eyes on one of their films.

Seeing these films for the first time was like finding a key to a long-locked room. It was uncovering the forbidden. I gaped in delight and glee as these characters and these films became my thing.

But there was one figure, one film, I had yet to experience.

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Hellraiser was just another franchise with an iconic killer to get around to at the time. I had no understanding of the true tone of the film, nor did I have any expectations outside of seeing another slasher film. Little did I know Hellraiser was very much not a slasher, and Pinhead and his Cenobites were far from the only monsters in the movie.

Did Hellraiser scare me? No, I rarely ever get scared watching horror movies. That’s not a flex, it’s just how I’m wired. What did happen to me was more akin to getting the wind knocked out of me.

Like I said, I had been exposed to plenty of gore before, but nothing this wet, this red, and this vicious. Flesh was twisted, ripped, and rent in ways far more messy than I had experienced before. The kills in your average Friday the 13th or Halloween sequel are like a punchline to a set-up, a fun release to the build up. They can be bloody, but the camera never lingers for long. They’re akin to a gory magic trick.

Hellraiser features Frank – a character who is a walking, talking, open wound the entire runtime – and he’s very drippy. We see various body parts nailed and hung from a rotating obelisk. Chains with hooks on the end literally rip bodies apart. Spending time in the world of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser was like visiting a slaughterhouse in hell.

Never before had violence and gore engaged my senses to such a degree. The viscera on display had a tangible quality to it. It was almost like you could smell the human offal and coppery tinge of blood.

Characters were in real, prolonged pain. This gore wasn’t a trick. This gore wasn’t a punchline.

It was real. And it hurt.

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The link between pleasure and pain was also something I wasn’t quite prepared to grapple with on my first viewing of Hellraiser. Sex and death were largely separate in the slashers I was used to. I wasn’t yet engaging in the subtext, intentional or not, with slashers on the mix of sexuality, violence, and death. To me it was just a bit of naughty fun. Some of these characters would have sex, then a few scenes later, they would get the axe. The lurid aspect of the slasher film is what attracts younger fans to begin with – the naughty factor.

In Hellraiser, sex and pleasure are the main motivator for our dual antagonists Frank and Julia. The overwhelming need they each have to reach the ultimate point of pleasure, to get lost in it and revel in it turns them into monsters of the highest order. For Frank and Julia, blood acts as just another bodily fluid to be shared in their pursuit of pleasure. Murder isn’t a means to an end, it’s all part of the pleasure. The carnal, wanton need to push the boundaries, to seek it out no matter the personal cost is what directly leads to most of the bloodshed in the film. Where is the line between pleasure and pain? Frank found it. Julia found it. They think they’ve mastered it. But the Cenobites know better. They take your desires and pervert them in the ultimate ironic punishment.

Needless to say, all of this floored me when I first saw it. I didn’t grasp all of what Hellraiser had to say at the time, but I knew it was saying something and I also knew I just stepped over a new threshold in the world of horror movies, a threshold that broadened my horizons for the genre outside of slashers and creature features.

To this day, the audacity of Hellraiser still surprises me. Of course there are far more violent and perverse genre films out there, but Hellraiser is still pretty brazen for a mainstream, wide release genre picture. It’s not just the sheer level of depravity you can toss at the screen that makes it impactful. It’s how you do it and what you’re saying with it. It’s the perfect calibration of Barker’s vision and the team he had behind him in making the film that still gives Hellraiser its power to shock and horrify and even titillate.

Like the Lament Configuration itself, Hellraiser is the key to sites unseen for burgeoning fans of horror movies. Just be sure you’re ready to unlock that door.

To paraphrase Pinhead, Hellraiser has such sights to show you.

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