Hellraiser (1987) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 27

by Jovial Jay

New Hellraiser Cenobites! Pleasure and pain in one simple leather-clad package!

Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is an early example of modern body horror which also explores the themes of sex and sadomasochism.

Before Viewing

Weird creatures with piercings and nails in the face. Moody atmospheric haunted houses. Screaming women. This trailer for Hellraiser seems to have it all. It sets a tone, but doesn’t give much else to go on. The assumption is there is some hell that is being raised in the film.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween


Hellraiser title card.

After Viewing

Somewhere in America (or maybe London, you figure it out), Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) solves a paranormal Rubik’s cube purchased from a vendor in what appears to be Morocco, causing chains and hooks to shoot from the walls and ceiling of his houses attic ripping him apart. A leather clad figure (Doug Bradley) appears, reconfigures the box, and vanishes. Sometime later Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) move into the house, finding effects of his just left in limbo.

Julia finds an old photo of Frank and remembers the torrid affair she had with him on her wedding day. The affair is intercut with Larry raking the back of his hand across a ragged nail as he moves his mattress upstairs. He finds Julia in the empty attic to get help bandaging his hand. The blood from his wound drips onto the wooden floor, seeping into cracks and reveals a small beating heart. Slowly, a body reforms in the attic.

Julia discovers the reforming Frank who craves more blood to bring him back from the dead. She begins picking up men at a local bar, bringing them home and killing them to sustain his life. Soon he was more than a gelatinous skeleton, but a skinless mass of human shaped muscles. He tells of the puzzle box which opened the doors to the pleasure of Heaven and Hell.


The mysterious puzzle box. Solve it if you dare!

Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) witnesses a third man coming into the house with Julia and following him discovers the thing in the attic. Kirsty grabs the puzzle box and flees, but is injured. She awakens in a hospital where she solves the box opening a portal to a dimension with strange, evil creatures that pursue her. Four leather clad humanoids appear, collectively called Cenobites, including the one from early who has nails affixed to his face, and attempt to spirit her away to another dimension of pleasure and pain.

Kirsty bargains that she can help them find her Uncle Frank, who escaped their realm. They agree to this bargain. While Kirsty is at the hospital, Julia convinces Larry to venture upstairs where Frank kills his brother and steals his skin. Now Frank, in Larry’s skin, welcomes Kirsty home by trying to stab her with a knife, but kills Julia instead. Frank admits his successful return to his niece, just as the Cenobites return for him.

They rip him apart (again) but decide that they have “sights to show her,” and renege on their deal. Her boyfriend Steve (Robert Hines) arrives at completely the wrong moment. But Kirsty uses the puzzle box to zap each Cenobite back to their dimension which burns the house down in the process. She throws the box into a small fire where a derelict retrieves it, transforms into a winged skeletal figure, and returns the box to the original seller in Morocco so he can sell it again to another buyer.

We’ll tear your soul apart” – Pinhead


Frank’s looking a little thin. Hopefully Julia can bring him something to put some meat on those bones.

Hellraiser is the first film both written and directed by horror author Clive Barker. Two of his works had previously been adapted into films, Underworld (1985, also known as Transmutations) and Rawhead Rex (1986), of which Barker had written the screenplays for. One of his novella’s, The Hellbound Heart, was the basis for Hellraiser. While a relatively low-budget film with few locations and fewer cast members, the film breaks plenty of new ground for the horror genre introducing the concept of sadomasochism and creating the endearing and enduring Cenobites.

While horror films often had elements of sex and death, Hellraiser combined them in a perverse and almost taboo way. The advent of the slasher film began to equate sex (often premarital sex or even just sexuality) with death and violence. But Barker’s choices feel much more deviant and raw. Near the beginning of the film, Julia finds the photo of Frank and an extended flashback of her being seduced/pressured into having sex with Frank plays out with intense passion. This sequence is intercut with Larry helping the movers bring the mattress up the stairs and his hand getting closer to an exposed, rusty nail. Barker juxtaposes a highly erotic scene with a scene designed to unnerve and make viewers flinch. This combination of pleasure and pain is one of the main themes for the monsters in the film. The only other “horror” film that I can think of that previously approaches this thematically is the 1960 Little Shop of Horrors film (remade as a musical in 1986). In that film Wilbur, played by Jack Nicholson, is the masochistic patient of Dr. Phoebus Farb, a dentist.


Frank, having grabbed his brother’s skin, finally feels like a new man.

The Cenobites, some of the most intriguing antagonists in a horror film in the decade of the 80s, come from another dimension (possibly Hell, this first film is sparse on details). They come when called by the puzzle box, referred to as the Lament (or LeMarchand) Configuration in future films, and offer the caller exhilarated heights of pleasure and pain. Presumably the person understands the use of the box, as Frank appeared to. But I can also imagine someone purchasing the box from the vendor in Morocco and being completely unaware of the nature of the device. Frank seemingly had reached the pinnacles of sexual deviance on the Earthly plane and so decided to try the worlds the Cenobites could offer him. They explore “the further regions of experience” presumably getting some additional kick out of the torture that their victims endure. At no point does the film show them providing pleasure, but that may really be something in the mind of the beholder.

The success of this film launched a successful and long lived franchise made of, as of this writing, nine sequels and an upcoming HBOMax television series. The first sequel Hellbound: Hellraiser II was released the following year from a story by Barker. He also served as a Producer through part 4 of the series (Hellraiser: Bloodline) and is rumored to be involved as a producer with a reboot of this original film coming soon. As with other successful horror series from the 70s and 80s, a single character was put forth as the lead antagonist for future films, with Pinhead (referred to as Lead Cenobite in this film). Like Freddy Krueger, Jason and Leatherface, his image and style was used to carry on the series as recently as 2018. Hellraiser’s different style of shock and horror was a fresh and new (if revolting) change in the genre which may have led to more of the graphic and intense films of the 90s and 00s such as Hostel, Saw, and The Devil’s Rejects. It’s definitely not a film for everyone, but if you can stomach seeing a skinless man walk around for half the film, or closeups of hooks latching onto flesh, this may be just what you’re looking for.


Three of the four demonic Cenobite creatures from the film: Chatterer, Pinhead, and Butterball.

Assorted Musings

  • Doug Bradley (Pinhead) appeared in the first eight films in the series, opting to not return as the Cenobite character in the 2011 and 2018 films.
  • The lack of an identified location leads to some of the surrealness of the film The film was shot in London, but later had the English actors voices dubbed over by Americans, leading to the confusing discussion between Kirsty and Steve where he says “we’re not all frigid,” while discussing Julia (obviously an English woman), yet Steve has an American accent.
  • Barker never liked the adoption of the name Pinhead, referring to him as “Priest” in spin off material and comics that he wrote.

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