There we were – newlyweds at our first duty station in San Angelo, Texas. The year was 1988. I had just received my commission in the Air Force and I was in San Angelo at tech school for the next six months. We had basic cable, but one of the few “premium” channels we got was The Movie Channel. Every Saturday night they showed horror movies on a show called Joe Bob's Drive-In Theater. The host was a guy named Joe Bob Briggs, self-proclaimed “Drive-In Movie Critic” of The Movie Channel from Grapevine, Texas. He always rated movies based on the number of naked breasts, the number of dead bodies, and how many gallons of blood were spilled during the movie. We watched his show religiously while all my classmates partied and got shitfaced. Anyway, during one such show there appeared a movie called Hellraiser. This was a new movie by a first-time director named Clive Barker. Joe Bob praised Hellraiser as his favorite horror movie of the year.
What was Hellraiser? Before I tell you what it was, first let me say what it wasn’t. It wasn’t a typical slasher movie that was en vogue at the time – no Jason, no Michael Myers, no Freddie Krueger. In Hellraiser, the villain is a guy named Pinhead - but more about him later. The story centers around a guy named Frank Cotton. He’s a hedonist that looks for any kind of pleasure wherever he can find it. His hedonism takes place before the movie begins. The opening scene has Frank buying some sort of puzzle box from a street vendor somewhere in Asia. This puzzle box is some sort of gateway to another dimension where one wishes to experience all kinds of sadomasochism. By the time of the opening scene, Frank has experienced all the different kinds of sexual pleasure there is to experience, so he’s gotten to the point where he isn’t feeling any pleasure from anything. Having heard of this puzzle box, he’s desperate for extreme experiences. After he buys the puzzle box, he retreats to his house. Once he solves the puzzle box, the box opens a portal to another dimension from which many chains with hooks come out and impale him. The chains drag him into the other dimension. Once that is done, the box closes and the room where Frank was returns to normal.
Larry Cotton is Frank’s brother – Julia is Larry’s wife. The relationship between Larry and Julia is strained because Julia slept with Frank prior to Larry and Julia’s marriage. Kirsty is Larry’s daughter. She and Julia don’t get along well. This family puts the “fun” in dysfunction. Larry and Julia move into Larry and Frank’s childhood home. It’s infested with rats, maggots, cockroaches, etc. While Larry was moving a mattress into the house, his hand got caught on a nail. The nail opens up a nasty wound on Larry’s hand. He goes upstairs into one of the vacant rooms to find Julia so she can bandage his wound. While the two of them are in the empty room, Larry bleeds all over the floor. Instead of the blood pooling and drying up, it gets sucked into the floor. After the floor sucks up the blood, all sorts of strange things happen, the end of which a skinless Frank emerges out of the floor. This is where the movie starts to get cool because you get to see the process of Frank’s rebirth. Frank’s arms are the first to come out of the floor, then he pulls himself up a little so that the rest of his skeleton can reconstitute. The only problem with this rebirth is that Frank doesn’t have any skin. This is where Julia comes in. During her previous fling with Frank, she promised him she would “do anything” for him. Frank calls in his marker. So Julia starts to go to bars to pick-up guys. She takes them back to the house. The guys she flirts with and ensnares think they are going to have sex with Julia. Instead, she clobbers them over the head, leaving them for Frank to drink them dry, and in the process he grows skin.
Kirsty had her suspicions about Julia. She thought Julia was cheating on her dad. She saw Julia bringing all of these men to her dad’s house. When she got there, she found Julia, and Frank was feeding on yet another victim. She and Frank struggle. Somehow she got the puzzle box away from Frank and threw it out a window. She gets out of the house, but after she fetched the puzzle box she passed out. She awoke in a hospital room, where one of the doctors gave her the puzzle box. Not knowing the power of the box, she solved the puzzle and opened the portal to Hell. Her she met Pinhead and the Cenobites. The Cenobites are half-human, half something else. They are grotesque creatures that have been mutilated somehow. That is a key to what the Cenobites do - they torture people who venture into their realm. It is a sadomasochist’s dream come true. Pinhead is their leader. Unlike other horror villains like Freddie Krueger, he doesn’t make wisecracks. He just tells it like it is. If he means to kill you, he’ll tell you as much, and sound really smart while doing so. He’s very articulate if not exquisitely menacing. His personality is a lot like that of Hannibal Lector, which makes him even more scary. When Kirsty asks about the Cenobites, Pinhead replies that cryptically that they are “angels to some, demons to others.” The Cenobites want to keep Kirsty and torture her for eternity, but she tells Pinhead that one of their captives [Frank] had escaped from them. She makes a deal with Pinhead. If she can deliver Frank, they’ll let her go.
Kirsty went back to her father’s house, where she found her father and Julia talking. Her dad told her that he had to kill Frank because he’s crazy. They all went to the attic, where Julia shows Kirsty a skinless dead body [presumably Frank]. Julia locked the door and the Cenobites appeared. Kirsty tried to escape but was prevented from doing so by Julia and Larry. Larry then reveals that he is really Frank, who is wearing Larry’s skin [yes, the skinless corpse is Larry]. Frank lusts after Kirsty, but after she rejected him he decided to kill Kirsty to complete his rejuvenation. He also kills Julia by accident, but being the sociopath he is he drinks Julia dry without a thought. The Cenobites asked who turned Larry into a skinless corpse. Frank figures out the Cenobites are after him, and shortly thereafter, hooks and chains appear from out of nowhere. Frank can’t move because he’s got so many hooks in him. He utters the phrase “Jesus wept” right before the hooks and chains pull him apart into a million pieces. Kirsty pried the puzzle box from Julia’s cold dead fingers, reverses all the moves of the puzzle box and seals the portal to Hell, leaving Frank’s pieces with the Cenobites. All the electricity generated by the puzzle box set the house on fire, which Kirsty escapes.
Did the story end happily ever after? Not by a longshot. Hellraiser spawned eight sequels. The first sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, saw Julia resurrected [and killed again]. It was almost as good as the first Hellraiser. But with so many sequels the Hellraiser series became like Friday the 13th and The Nightmare on Elm Street - wash, rinse, repeat. As much as the story became diluted over time, the first movie was brilliant. It dared to be different.