Double Retro Review: Hellraiser and Lord of Illusions

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After recently finishing The Scarlet Gospels I had a strong yearning to watch both the original Hellraiser and Lord of Illusions. I guess I need Harry and Pinhead in my life right now. I can’t shake them off after reading such a fantastic book.

The original Hellraiser film was released during the slasher craze of the 80’s. Freddy and Jason were battling it out at the box office as a new film in each respective franchise was released year after year with dwindling box office returns. It was obvious the horror crowd was getting tired of seeing the same slasher formula being repeated over and over again. They wanted something new and in the fall of 1987 Hellraiser did exactly that and more.

The film moved away from the silly campfire and boogeyman of our dreams mythology and created a new horror icon in the form of Pinhead who was more interesting than the silent killers such as Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers and the more out spoken Freddy Kruger. He had a mystique that was original and it caught on fast. Even though he’s hardly in the first film and isn’t a villain at all in the story, he was used as a selling point to market the movie and the rest is film history.

What’s most interesting about the first film looking back on it is that the story is about a simple family that is torn apart and destroyed by an evil and malicious human being known as Frank Cotton. He is the real monster here and there are no limits to his betrayal. There’s not one moment in the film where I felt any sympathy for this character.

One of the more tragic parts of the story is how he transforms Julia from a happily married woman into a wicked and murdering slut. In the flashback scenes we’re introduced to a warm and caring individual. Unlike the novella, she seems happy and content with Larry, but when Frank has his way with her, he takes all of these qualities away. In a strange way, Julia was stripped of her skin as well.

His torments continue with his niece Kirsty and though it’s never stated in the film, I’m pretty sure Kirsty is a virgin and this appeals to Frank because he loves to destroy such creations. In one of the film’s more disturbing scenes, he has her pushed up against a wall and touches her in his own special ways.

But Kirsty is a strong character, and unlike Julia, is able to resist his persuasions and escapes him. But it’s obvious that she’s been tainted by his touch as she slowly begins to pass out the farther away she gets from him. Frank is a poison that can never wash away.

But the ultimate betrayal comes when he murders and takes his own brother’s skin. He mocks his brother by wearing his skin as he gives Julia the ultimate fuck. Even in death he pisses on his brother’s memory.

Barker really shines in his directorial debut. He directs all of this melodrama with a visual flare that comes across like poetry. There are a lot of images and sequences in the film that are very striking. Some of my favorite moments include a red flower spreading its petals out as Kirsty awakens from a dream, the extreme close-ups of Larry’s blood as it hits the floor, and the resurrection of Frank still holds up to this day as a landmark in practical effects.

Christopher Young’s captivating score for the movie was more personal that captured the internal feelings of its characters. Julia’s theme when she’s having the flashbacks of Frank create sympathy for her even though she doesn’t deserve it. I loved how the music starts off slow and then rises to a fever pitch as they have sex. The music reflects how she feels about this man. I’d say this is probably in my top ten favorite film scores of all time.

There’s also a great deal of subtext to the film that I really enjoyed. Of course Barker is going to thrown in biblical references with the nail cutting into Larry’s hand and the blood bringing back Frank, the brother’s story reminded me of Cain and Abel, and I really enjoyed the sexual undertones that are sprinkled throughout the film. The Chatterer thrusting his fingers down Kirsty’s throat always came off as a form of oral rape.

Of course we can’t have a Hellraiser review without mentioning Pinhead in some capacity. Like I said before, the Hell Priest’s first celluloid adventure has very little do with him and the other cenobites. They have a purpose in the story but they don’t drive it. But it’s not surprising that audience grabbed onto him like they did because he strikes a very imposing figure thanks to Doug Bradley’s excellent performance. There was a poetry to the character that Doug tapped into and clearly understood how to convey that to the audience. He was born to play this role.

All the other actors do a great job as well. Ashley Laurence brings a strong female lead to the proceedings which was a nice change since most women characters of the 80’s were nothing more than eye-candy with no substance. Ashley brought both to the role and she also could kick some ass. Clare Higgins gives the role of Julia the right amount of sympathy at the beginning but then switches on us and goes batshit crazy with lust. And Sean Chapman, Oliver Smith and most importantly Andrew Robinson create the ultimate villain with Frank. I’m surprised the character isn’t given more credit in the horror internet circles for being so. All three portrayals of the character are more rotten than the ones before it. Actor Andrew Robinson gets the best version though as he plays the “cat and mouse” game to perfection. And he has the best line in the movie with “Jesus Wept”.

Of course Pinhead would eventually take over the series and become a house hold name. But at the end of day the first film works by itself and always will.

After a horrible experience with the production of his second feature The Nightbreed (thankfully restored to its true form this past year) Clive took some time off from behind the camera and stuck behind the scenes to produce a few movies such as Candyman and Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. He would also find the time to write the sequel to The Great and Secret Show, called Everville. Finally in the 1995 Clive Barker would write a script loosely based off his short story The Last Illusion from his Books of Blood collection.

Which brings me to Lord of Illusions, Clive Barker’s third (and final?) directorial effort that was released in the late summer of 1995. It’s a strange combination of film noir and classic horror elements that come together to create something original which could only come from the mind of Clive Barker. And most importantly it introduced the popular paranormal detective Harry D’Amour to a more mainstream audience.

With Lord of Illusions Clive really grew as a director. He pulled off some amazing sequences with strong direction and visual style. The best scene in the movie is Swann’s performance at the Pantages Theater. From the opening crane shot, to Swann’s death, and finally when Harry escapes Butterfield and Miller, it’s all done with the finesse of someone who knows what they want and how to achieve it through a strong confident vision.

Another great scene I enjoyed was the Origami Man sequence. The scene was filled with some great suspense and was pulled off by some very cool special effects. I really enjoyed the effect of how the Origami Man folded back on himself when Dorothea touches him. It still holds up very nicely after twenty years.

Clive also gets some great performances from his actors. First off, Scott Bakula embodied the character of Harry D’Amour from the first time I saw him onscreen. Bakula captures the haunted and charming qualities that have made the character so popular among the fans.

If Frank from Hellraiser represents the darkness in the world then Harry is the light that fights to keep the natural order in check. He’s a man who’s constantly fighting the demons inside himself and the demons that try to destroy our world.  It’s not a job that he desires to have, but it’s his destiny to face and confront the darkness until he takes his last breath.

Interesting to note is that Bakula was the one that suggested to Clive that he have a tattoo like the character does from the stories. He was obviously very invested in the character and I’d love to see Scott portray the character again.

Famke Janssen plays Dorothea as a vulnerable women who really needs someone to love her. She hates the situation she’s living in and luckily Harry is there for here when she needs someone the most. I enjoyed the relationship Harry and Dorothea developed throughout the movie. There’s great chemistry here and it’s good to see Harry getting the woman for a change. At his core the character is a softy and I think he really wants to have a normal life but this karmic debt he believes he owes to save the world from the forces of darkness always comes first.

The late Daniel Von Bargen brings a creepy and sad quality to the role of Nix that reminded me of the character Mamoulian from The Damnation Game. He’s an interesting villain in that once he’s resurrected he destroys everything that loved him and in the end decides to become “rotten shit” when he realizes that life is the loneliest place there is to be.

Berry Del Sherman’s performance as Butterfield also won me over. For me Butterfield was the true villain of the story and Sherman brought a quiet and menacing tone to the character that really worked. The scenes between him and Valentin were very suspenseful and I loved the dialog Barker gave him during these moments.

The musical score by Simon Boswell drove the horror and mysterious sides of the story home with strong effect. But he was also able to create themes that were very romantic, especially Harry’s main theme. It’s a great hybrid score between a horror film and an old school film noir movie from the 50’s.

Production design by Steven Hardie gave the film another big added boost. I really dug the compound they took shelter in. All the creepy artwork on the walls were obviously Clive Barker inspired. It had a great The Texas Chainsaw Massacre feel to it when you were walking through the hallways with the characters.

There were a few problems I had with the movie. Someone I’ve been talking to on Facebook made a good point that the opening scene should’ve been used later on in the film as a flashback. It reveals way to much to soon. It’s still a great scene though and I love the mask Swann uses on Nix to bind him with which is a wonderful nod to Mario Bava’s Black Sunday.

But after all these years Hellraiser and Lord of Illusions continue to amaze! And what’s so great about them is that neither film feels dated in the slightest. Both films work just as well when they were first released. So if you get the chance revisit them. You won’t regret it, I promise you.

Hellraiser – 10/10

Lord of Illusions – 8/10

The Breakdown

Lord of Illusions

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