On the surface, Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987) may appear to be fundamentally different from many other slasher films of the late 1970s through the 1980s such as Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984). This perception can easily stem from the fact that many of the essential elements of the film, such as who summons the monster, who is the primary victim, and even who is the main character, are all in many ways different from the aforementioned films. Even the monsters of Hellraiser, Pinhead and his fellow cenobites, are different from such creations as Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) and Michael Myers (Tony Moran) in a variety of ways that set them apart from the pack. Less of a pure antagonist and more of a lawful evil, Pinhead can almost be perceived as a good guy in parts of the film, something that can hardly be said of his contemporaries. But despite these differences, Clive Barker’s film is still fundamentally the same on many levels as the aforementioned films. Though it may both focus on different characters and contain an alternative monster in comparison to many slasher films, Hellraiser still follows many of the basic tenets of its genre by approaching them from a different perspective.
Beginning with whom the film focuses on, Hellraiser sets itself apart from its genre contemporaries. Teenagers and young people in general are the most popular main characters in a majority of slasher films, but Hellraiser instead dwells on middle-aged Julia (Clare Higgens) and Frank (Sean Chapman and Oliver Smith). Through the sins of these two characters Pinhead and his cenobites are summoned, and the typical karma-esque justice of slasher films is dispensed. But even though these characters are different from Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) of the Halloween franchise and any of the countless other teenagers that have been dispatched in slasher films over the years by way of their age, their function is not wholly different from their contemporaries in other franchises. Whereas the main characters of A Nightmare on Elm Street are inarguably teenagers and other young adults, the presence of an older generation is still extremely important. Just as the adults of Elm Street created the monster Freddy Krueger, and Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) was the killer in Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980), slasher films often hold the older generation as the bringers of destruction upon those younger than them. Hellraiser is the same in this regard. Julia and Frank, though the film may focus on them more than its younger characters, such as Kristy (Ashley Laurence), are still placed in this same fundamental role just as many other slasher films do to their older members.
However, Frank does achieve some unique distinction in that he ultimately becomes an antagonist monster himself. Comparable to Mrs. Voorhees, Frank takes the extra step of physically becoming a threat to the younger generation. In many ways, he is the primary antagonist of the film, as he is the one whom incites most of the killing in the film. Pinhead, in comparison, only dispatches of one person, being Frank, in the entire film. This feature reaffirms the cenobites’ status as agents of lawful evil as they only harm those whom summon them, though they are not above harming those who unknowingly or unqittingly do so. The film characterizes Pinhead as a being that exists outside of his want to bring harm to others, and this distinction makes him unique, but also less menacing in his own way. The most terrifying aspect of Michael Myers is his raw will and his lack of characterization. Halloween does not ever let on as to what Michael is thinking or even why he is doing what he is outside of assumptions by some characters, and this has the effect of making him become a force of nature and therefore more menacing as he cannot be understood. None of this is to say that Pinhead is weak as a character, but the film makes him transparent enough that it must resort to Frank to provide a truly menacing villain. Frank’s motivations are understood, but his will is more raw and unpredictable, making him much more fearsome.
None of this is to say that Hellraiser harbors any misconceptions about its genre or that it completely forgoes the conventions that are common to it. In the end, Kristy becomes the main character and the protagonist as she has to survive the dangers brought on by the generation above her and set things right. Pinhead eventually emerges as the villain, of sorts, in the closing moments of the film as he pursues Kristy, but this is more of a tool to wrap up the film than anything, and the weakest part of it. Third act errors aside, the film maintains itself as an alternative slasher film for most of its runtime. The aforementioned changes are the primary driving force behind this, and they keep the film original and even refreshing. It is telling that the third act of the film suffers as these changes give way to the stereotypical slasher film format. Ultimately though, the film does not change much throughout its entirety in terms of its elements, but its presentation of them is what is distinct. Hellraiser does not reinvent the conventions of its genre, but instead it brings to the surface elements that have been in the background all along.