One of my favorite 80s movies is a surreal horror tale about tall, powerful robed figures who come to our world to take their prisoners back to an eternal prison we humans can only attempt to comprehend. Obviously, I’m talking about the 1986 motion picture Critters. With a premise that solid, it’s no surprise that just one year later Clive Barker would copy Critters for his horror tale Hellraiser. Both of these films understand something about science fiction and horror that so many other films from their era, as well as even more films today, can’t seem to grasp. The most interesting part, aspect, or character of a film doesn’t have to be the focal point of the film.
In Critters, the titular monsters are fun and do a great job of carrying the 75% of the film they are in, but the most captivating part of the movie is not the bloodthirsty furballs. We have seen B movies about alien monsters assaulting a family home. That very thing has happened to pretty much everyone I know. What bumps Critters to a more unoccupied space is the space bounty hunters trying to find and annihilate the creatures. This vague, well-equipped duo moves about Earth in interesting ways, having their own mini fish-out-of-water adventure while still solely focused on tracking and killing the Critters. Every scene they are in is instantly gripping, with each little nugget of how they work adding to cool lore that goes almost entirely unspoken in the film. Without any kind of expository explanation, we get it. They are bad dudes and they are doing their job.
I think this same idea is secretly the (hellbound) heart of Hellraiser. The villain of the movie is not Pinhead, but Frank, a sadistic fleshless human that needs blood. Frank enlists his lover to kill for him, assisting in his vile plan to reclaim human form after escaping from a dimension of torture. When the cenobites do finally show up, we don’t know anything about these leather-clad baddies other than they are scary as hell and not from around here. They proceed to follow along as the plot of Hellraiser continues down the paths it was already heading down without them. The lack of screen time makes their appearances hit hard. I can’t think of any characters as jaw-dropping as the cenobites, and that comes from the fact that they are nearly unknown to us. Sure, they also make some weird sounds and have a lot of nasty bits on their bodies, but all the stuff I said is true too!
The scene that ultimately separates Hellraiser’s cenobites from the plethora of movie monsters we’ve grown to love and fear is when they make a deal with the lead character, Kirsty. They agree to let her go if they can have Frank, the man who escaped them. These are not mindless killing machines, designed for blood and scares. These are highly efficient, misunderstood beings that are, that’s right, just doing their job. They are more than similar to the bounty hunters from Critters, and boy oh boy are they just as good at their job.
This is why the sequels to Hellraiser mostly don’t work. They are obsessed with a weird dude and his silly box when those should be small pieces of the bigger puzzle. We still can’t seem to separate “Hellraiser” from “Pinhead” when he’s not even the one raising hell in the original. Frank is. He is the Hellraiser.
Yet, the sequels are obsessed with lorifying these beings. We should never learn who Pinhead was as a human. We should never learn who made the box that summons them. They shouldn’t be stomping through downtown killing in excess. They shouldn’t even be the main focus of the movie.
With all that said, I would never point out problems without also offering solutions. So to close, I’d like to hammer home these points by providing my map of what the Hellraiser franchise should look like up to this point. I mean, the first one just copied Critters, and there are five Critters movies, so this can’t be that hard:
Hellraiser 2: Easy, we copy Critters 2. In Critters 2 the bounty hunters unite with the human boy of the first film to kill new Critters on Earth. Traditional bigger sequel. Couldn’t be easier to apply to Hellraiser. Frank is back! The cenobites have to team up with Kirsty to go after him. Does it make sense? Probably not, but it rocks.
Hellraiser 3: We use the one known aspect of Critters 3, so the cenobites terrorize a young Leonardo Dicaprio in one of his first film roles. It gets brought up in horror trivia for the next century. No one remembers the plot of the movie. Hmmm, Hellraiser 3 kind of rules though. Maybe this one isn’t a great swap?
Hellraiser 4: We copy Critters 4. The cenobites go to space! Okay, wait, apparently, they actually did this one. Okay, so it’s supposedly terrible. I am beginning to see flaws in my logic. Have I been wrong about all of this? Was this whole thing misguided? Should I give up?
Hellraiser 5: Okay, wait, forget the copycatting. I’ve cracked it. I’m a genius. The Cenobites come to Earth to hunt the Critters. Oh hell yeah, this one makes a billion dollars.
Walt Braley is a humor writer all over the internet and an editor for Robotbutt.com. He took up comedy after being unmasked comically early in his luchador wrestling career.