Which is fine - it is a fantastic premise and one that pretty much discounts most spiritual and secular beliefs in lieu of creating its own explanations for the realms outside of human experience. It may be easier to view the Hellraiser concept as elaborate fantasy rather than to think of it as horror. No other series of films can prepare a viewer for Hellraiser because there isn’t another series anything like it…although I suspect writer/director Clive Barker used A Nightmare on Elm Street in his pitch.
Of the four films that played theatrically - Hellraiser, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, Hellraiser III: I Fling the CD Electric & Hellraiser: Muppets in Space - really only the first two merit serious attention.
The original remains the gold standard and in one sense it does rely on the tried and true: The most horrific concepts are often the most intimately staged. The bulk of Hellraiser takes place within the confines of an old house and revolves around four members of the Cotton family:
1. Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman, and later in the movie Oliver Smith), a hedonistic pleasure seeker with no conscience and even fewer morals.
2. Larry (Andrew Robinson, Dirty Harry’s Scorpio Killer), Frank’s square of an older brother.
3. Julia (Clare Higgins), Larry’s ice-cold wife and Frank’s ex-lover.
4. Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), the college-age daughter of Larry, niece of Frank and stepdaughter of Julia, who inadvertently gets caught up in and nearly pays for the sins of the adults – although the concept of sin in the world of Hellraiser is a dubious prospect at best.
When Frank Cotton discovers the puzzle box (or the Lament Configuration, as it later came to be known), he believes it to be the key to ultimate pleasure. Upon solving it, he discovers it’s more of a key to dimensions outside the earthly realm: Areas inhabited by beings known as Cenobites. Cenobites, in the words of their leader Pinhead (Doug Bradley), are “Explorers in the further regions of experience. Demons to some. Angels to others”. They subject Frank to all manner of gruesomeness, resulting in his eventual death…or so it would seem.
Some time later, Larry and Julia move into the house he owns with brother Frank – the same house in which Frank solved the puzzle and died in. A minor accident leads to Larry spilling some blood in the attic – blood that Frank absorbs and uses to somehow bring himself back from the dead, although it’s unclear exactly how this works. Was Frank ever really dead or was he existing in a dimension between life and death? Frank’s words “I escaped them [the Cenobites]!” give little explanation. In writer/director Clive Barker’s imagination, it seems the point of the goings-on is the exploration of the unknown and answers aren’t always given. Again, in order to accept this world you must play by its frequently bizarre and inconsistent rules.
It doesn’t take long for Frank to reintroduce Julia to his sadomasochism, and in order to become fully human again (at least in appearance) he needs the blood - and eventually the skin - of more people. She begrudgingly agrees to pick up strangers on the street and lure them back to the attic with promises of sex. Needless to say the promises aren’t kept and the men end up fueling the rebirth of Frank Cotton, an act which may have fatal consequences for Larry, Kirsty and even Julia herself.
It's interesting to note that the differences between the film and Barker's novella on which it's based, The Hellbound Heart, are fairly minor. Probably the most noteworthy is that Kirsty is not Larry Cotton's daughter, but rather a female friend who's carried the torch for him for many years. The text is also able to more clearly explore the pleasure/pain angle through detailed descriptions of Frank's experiences with the Cenobites. If the film wasn't such a spot-on adaptation in other respects, it might be an ideal candidate for remaking at some point in the future.
The film is squarely rooted in the human concept of the blurred lines between pleasure and pain - something that's perhaps also symbolized through the family - but with each sequel the series got further and further away from the idea. This is noteworthy, as I don’t believe the first movie said all there was to be said on what’s Frankly - sorry…couldn’t resist - a fascinating idea.