Hellraiser (DVD)

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Hellraiser (DVD)

"I have seen the future of horror fiction and his name is Clive Barker," Stephen King once said, and his quote has accompanied nearly every Barker-related project for years. King's prediction now seems a little off, but only because, imitators aside, the territory Barker staked out for himself in the '80s remains distinctively his. Combining sexual frankness with the literally visceral, Barker's short stories emphasized horror's potential for moral ambiguity while focusing on the overlapping pains and pleasures of the body. Gone were old-fashioned gothic bugaboos, replaced by monsters more directly from the id. With 1987's Hellraiser, his first full-length film as a director, Barker attempted to bring this vision to film, meeting with surprising success. Working with a modest budget, Barker created a bloody fairy tale complete with a wicked, if not quite evil, stepmother in the form of theater actress Clare Higgins. Playing the wife of ineffectual husband Andrew Robinson (Dirty Harry), Higgins barely hides her contempt as the two move into a family house once inhabited by Robinson's hard-living, now-missing brother, with whom Higgins once had an affair. Thanks to supernatural forces, Robinson's brother returns, sort of, as a skinless pile of organs that entreats Higgins to kill for him in an effort to flesh out his half-formed body. Meanwhile, Robinson's scream-prone daughter (Ashley Laurence) begins to suspect that matters might be amiss, a suspicion confirmed by the arrival of four pale demons fitted out in bondage gear. One of these, a bald demon with nails pounded into his skull, has become the most enduring image of Hellraiser and its sequels, and rightly so. A deeply unsettling, S&M-inspired creature whose blurring of the division between pleasure and pain extends to a blurring of the division between good and evil, it neatly and instantly sums up some of Barker's themes. Pinhead barely appears in Hellraiser, a film that, with its intense and uncomfortable family drama, might have even worked without him. With him, however, it becomes one of the most innovative and memorable horror films of the '80s, a middle ground between mainstream fare and the work of David Cronenberg, in its most powerful moments conjuring up the latter's ability to make viewers feel uncomfortable in their own bodies. Now making its DVD debut, Hellraiser has been given a thoughtfully arranged edition featuring a loose, enjoyable commentary from Barker, Laurence, and longtime Barker collaborator Peter Atkins. Atkins would go on to pen Hellbound, Hellraiser's 1988 sequel, currently available on DVD only as part of a deluxe package that includes the original. Though ambitious in its attempts to expand on its predecessor, Hellbound descends quickly into nonsense involving a deaf girl, an evil doctor, and several characters from the original. Offering memorable imagery and little more, it eventually devolves into distasteful gore for its own sake. It's far less compelling than its no less bloody but far more intelligent inspiration.