Since release, the film has divided critics but generally received praise; initial reviews ranged from Melody Maker calling it the greatest horror film made in Britain, to Roger Ebert decrying its "bankruptcy of imagination". It spawned several sequels, all of which featured Doug Bradley reprising his role as the lead Cenobite Pinhead, excluding the 2011 entry Hellraiser: Revelations and the upcoming Hellraiser: Judgment.
In Morocco, Frank Cotton buys a puzzle box from a dealer. In a bare attic, when Frank solves the puzzle, hooked chains emerge and tear him apart. Later, the room is filled with swinging chains and covered with the remnants of his body. A black-robed figure picks up the box and returns it to its original state, restoring the room to normal.
Some time afterward, Frank's brother Larry moves into the house to rebuild his strained relationship with his second wife, Julia, who had an affair with Frank shortly before their marriage. Larry's teenage daughter, Kirsty, has chosen not to live with them and moves into her own place. Larry cuts his hand carrying a bed up the stairs, and lets his blood drip on the attic floor. The blood resurrects Frank as a skinless corpse, who is soon found by Julia. Still obsessed with Frank, she agrees to harvest blood for him so that he can be fully restored, and they can run away together. Julia begins picking up men in bars and bringing them back to the house, where she murders them. Frank consumes their blood, regenerating his body. Frank explains to Julia that he had exhausted all sensory experiences and sought out the puzzle box, with the promise that it would open a portal to a realm of new carnal pleasures. When solved, the "Cenobites" came to subject him to the extremes of sadomasochism.
Kirsty spies Julia bringing men to the house; believing her to be having an affair, she follows her to the attic, where she interrupts Frank's latest feeding. Frank attacks her, but Kirsty throws the puzzle box out the window, creating a distraction and allowing her to escape. Kirsty retrieves the box and flees, but collapses shortly thereafter. Awakening in a hospital, Kirsty solves the box, summoning the Cenobites and a two-headed monster, which Kirsty narrowly escapes from. The Cenobites' leader explains that although the Cenobites have been perceived as both angels and demons, they are simply "explorers" from another dimension seeking carnal experiences, and they can no longer differentiate between pain and pleasure. Although they attempt to force Kirsty to return to their realm with them, she informs Pinhead that Frank has escaped. The Cenobites agree to take Frank back and, in exchange, say they will consider giving Kirsty her freedom; however, the catch is that they need to hear Frank confess to his crimes and escape.
Kirsty returns home, where Frank has killed Larry and taken his identity by stealing his skin. Julia shows her what is purported to be Frank's flayed corpse in the attic, locking the door behind her. The Cenobites appear and, not fooled by the deception, demand the man who "did this". Kirsty tries to escape but is held by Julia and Frank. Frank reveals his true identity to Kirsty and, when his sexual advances are rejected, he decides to kill her to complete his rejuvenation. He accidentally stabs Julia instead and drinks her blood without remorse. Frank chases Kirsty to the attic and, when he is about to kill her, the Cenobites appear after hearing him confess to killing her father. Now sure he is the one they are looking for, they ensnare him with chains and tear him to pieces. They then ultimately attempt to abduct Kirsty. Ripping the puzzle box from Julia's dead hands, Kirsty defeats the Cenobites by reversing the motions needed to open the puzzle box, sending them back to Hell. Kirsty's boyfriend shows up and helps her escape the collapsing house.
Afterwards, Kirsty throws the puzzle box onto a burning pyre. A vagrant who has been stalking Kirsty walks into the fire and retrieves the box before transforming into a winged creature and flying away. The box ends up in the hands of the merchant who sold it to Frank, offering it to another prospective customer.Andrew Robinson as Larry Cotton
Clare Higgins as Julia Cotton
Ashley Laurence as Kirsty Cotton
Sean Chapman as Frank Cotton
Robert Hines as Steve
Doug Bradley as Lead Cenobite
Nicholas Vince as Chattering Cenobite
Simon Bamford as 'Butterball' Cenobite
Grace Kirby as Female Cenobite
Oliver Smith as "Skinless" Frank / Frank the Monster
Hellraiser was filmed at the end of 1986 and was set to be made in seven weeks, but was extended over a nine- to ten-week period by New World. The film was originally made under the title of Sadomasochists from Beyond the Grave. Barker spoke about filming fondly in The Hellraiser Chronicles, stating that his memories on production were of "unalloyed fondness ... The cast treated my ineptitudes kindly, and the crew were no less forgiving." Barker admitted his own lack of knowledge on filmmaking, stating that he "didn't know the difference between a 10-millimetre lens and a 35-millimetre lens. If you'd shown me a plate of spaghetti and said that was a lens, I might have believed you."
During production, Doug Bradley had trouble hitting his marks during his takes in make-up as he couldn't see through his black contact lenses and was afraid of tripping over Pinhead's skirts. The special effects of the unnamed creature, known as "The Engineer" in the novels, proved difficult as the creature was difficult to manoeuvre. Other issues included a rushed shoot of the Chinese restaurant scene with Kirsty and Larry, due to the lateness of the individual responsible for letting the cast and crew into the establishment.
The film had two editors: Richard Marden and an uncredited Tony Randel. Barker originally wanted the electronic music group Coil to perform the music for the film, but that notion was rejected by New World. Editor Tony Randel then suggested Christopher Young as a replacement for Coil for the film's score. Young had previously composed scores for other horror films such as the 1985 slasher A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge and the 1986 Tobe Hooper film Invaders from Mars.
Clive Barker had to make some cuts on the film after MPAA gave it an X rating. Following scenes were cut for R rating;Two and a half shots were excised from the first hammer murder, including a closeup of the hammer lodged in the victim's head.
In the scene where Julia murders another man, the actor playing the victim felt that it made sense for him to do so naked. The nude murder scene was shot but, ultimately, replaced with a semi-clothed version.
Close-ups of Kirsty sticking her hand into Frank's stomach, exposing his guts.
Longer version of the scene where Frank is being torn into pieces by the Cenobites' hooks. Final shot where his head explodes and his brain messily splashes out was also cut.
In interview for Samhain magazine in July 1987, Barker mentioned some problems that censors had with more erotic scenes in the movie;
Well, we did have a slight problem with the eroticism. I shot a much hotter flashback sequence than they would allow us to cut in.... Mine was more explicit and less violent. They wanted to substitute one kind of undertow for another. I had a much more explicit sexual encounter between Frank and Julia, but they said no, let's take out the sodomy and put in the flick knife.
Barker also said on the commentary for the movie that the seduction scene between Julia and Frank was, initially, a lot more explicit; "We did a version of this scene which had some spanking in it and the MPAA was not very appreciative of that. Lord knows where the spanking footage is. Somebody has it somewhere…The MPAA told me I was allowed two consecutive buttock thrusts from Frank but three is deemed obscene!"
The score for Hellraiser was released in 1987. AllMusic stated that the score proved that Christopher Young "hadn't used up all of his ideas for the horror genre" and that Young had matched "Barker's stylish look with a gothic score that mixed in exciting synthesizer effects."
Hellraiser had its first public showing at the Prince Charles Cinema on 10 September 1987. The film was released in the United States on 18 September 1987; it grossed $14,564,000 in the United States and Canada.
Hellraiser was initially banned in Ontario by the Ontario Film and Video Review Board. By a 3-2 majority vote, the film was deemed "not approved in its entirety as it contravenes community standards". It was banned because of its "brutal, graphic violence with blood-letting throughout, horror, degradation and torture." In August 1987, Hellraiser was passed by the Ontario Film Review Board, but only after several cuts were made to the film. New World Mutual Pictures of Canada cut about 40 seconds to get the film passed with an R rating. Thirty-five seconds of an extended torture scene featuring hooks pulling apart a body and face were removed, as well as a scene of squirming rats nailed to a wall.
For contemporary reviews in the United Kingdom, Time Out London referred to the film as "Barker's dazzling debut" that "creates such an atmosphere of dread that the astonishing set-pieces simply detonate in a chain reaction of cumulative intensity" and concluded that the film was "a serious, intelligent and disturbing horror film". The Daily Telegraph stated that "Barker has achieved a fine degree of menace" while The Daily Mail described the film as "a pinnacle of the genre". Melody Maker described it as "the best horror film ever to be made in Britain". Kim Newman writing for the Monthly Film Bulletin noted that the most immediately striking aspect of the movie is its seriousness of tone in an era when horror films (the Nightmare on Elm Street or Evil Dead films in particular) tend to be broadly comic." Newman noted that the film "suffers from a few minor compromises: notably a decision made fairly late in shooting to change the specifically English setting for an ambiguous (and unbelievable) mid-Atlantic one." Newman also noted that the Cenobites were "well used suggestive figures" but "their monster companion is a more blunderingly obvious concession to the gross-out tastes of the teenage drive-in audience". Newman concluded that the film was "a return to the cutting edge of horror cinema" and that in more gruesome moments the film "is a reminder of the grand guignol intensity that has recently tended to disintegrate into lazy splatter". Q stated that "Hellraiser does have its share of problems: the re-dubbing of peripheral character with a mid-Atlantic twang, the relocation of the film in a geographical limbo [...] The film, however, cannot be faulted for the ambitiousness of its themes [...] Sadly the moral and emotional complexity that is the film's greatest strength is likely to be deemed its greatest weakness by an audience weaned on the misplaced jocularity of House or Fright Night."
In the United States, The New York Times stated that Barker cast "singularly uninteresting actors" while "the special effects aren't bad - only damp." The Washington Post referred to the film as a "dark, frequently disturbing and occasionally terrifying film" as well as noting that "Barker's vision hasn't quite made the conversion from paper to celluloid [...] There are some weaknesses, particularly the framing of close-ups and the generic score, but there are some moments of genuinely inventive gore [...] the film falls apart at its climax, degenerating to a surprisingly lame ending full of special effects and triumphant good." Roger Ebert stated "as dreary a piece of goods as has masqueraded as horror in many a long, cold night. This is one of those movies you sit through with mounting dread, as the fear grows inside of you that it will indeed turn out to be feature length." and that "This is a movie without wit, style or reason, and the true horror is that actors were made to portray, and technicians to realize, its bankruptcy of imagination." Variety stated that Hellraiser is "well made, well acted, and the visual effects are generally handled with skill."
In the early 2010s, Time Out conducted a poll with several authors, directors, actors and critics who have worked within the horror genre to vote for their top horror films. Hellraiser placed at number 80 on their top 100 list.
In North America, Hellraiser has been released by Anchor Bay Entertainment three times, all of which are the original 93-minute version of the film (this is the only version to ever be released on DVD). The original DVD release was a "barebones" release and is now out of print. It was reissued in 2000 with a new 5.1 mix mastered in THX. Finally, it was packaged along with Hellbound: Hellraiser II in a Limited Edition tin case which included a 48-page colour booklet and a reproduction theatrical poster for both films. Anchor Bay released the film on Blu-ray in 2009. This version retains all of the special features found on the 20th anniversary special edition DVD. In 2011, the film was re-released on Blu-ray by Image Entertainment under the "Midnight Madness" series label. This version contains no special features. However, various Blu-ray releases have since emerged with a highly variable selection of special features, although most of these are recycled from previous DVD releases.
On 25 October 2015, Arrow Films released the film on Blu-ray in the UK along with Hellbound: Hellraiser II and Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth in a Scarlet Box edition featuring new 2K restorations and extensive list of bonus features including feature-length documentaries on the first 2 films and a bonus disc containing additional content such as 2 short films by Clive Barker. The Scarlet Box is now out of print in the UK and replaced by a 3-film edition of the set without the bonus disc.
A US version of the Scarlet Box (with the same material) was released by Arrow on 20 December 2016.
In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the film, Clive Barker has adapted his early "Hell Priest" concept designs for the Lead Cenobite into an officially licensed mask for Composite Effects. Only a limited quantity of thirty of these masks were made and then released to the public on 24 March 2017. As part of the Anniversary, Hellraiser will be re-released via Blu-Ray in a Steelbook edition on 30 October 2017. In addition, the film will receive a theatrical screening at the Prince Charles Cinema, where it made its world premiere in 1987. A remixed and remastered version of Christopher Young's score will also be made available, debuting at the Anniversary screening.
Dimension Films' remake of Hellraiser was announced in November 2006. French director Pascal Laugier was set to direct the film but was later taken off the project due to creative differences with the producers; Laugier wanted his film to be a very serious take whereas the producers wanted the film to be more commercial and appeal to a teen audience.
In October 2007, it was announced that French filmmakers Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo would write and direct the remake. However, this version would also not come to fruition. In 2011 the duo discussed with Collider the reasons that ultimately led to their departure from the project. As Maury related: "The problem was that we couldn’t agree on the script with the studio. It’s kind of obvious why. We are hardcore fans of the original and we wanted to be respectful to Clive Barker’s universe. Without his greenlight, we never would have done it. We wouldn’t have even considered it. But Bob Weinstein of course had his own vision of the movie and wants to have a movie that can appeal to the largest possible audience...For us, it wasn’t possible to make something that could be both."
On 20 October 2010, it was officially announced that Patrick Lussier and Todd Farmer were to direct and write, respectively, the reboot of the Hellraiser franchise. The film's story would differ from the original film, as Lussier and Farmer did not want to retell the original story out of respect for Clive Barker's work. The film was to instead focus on the world and function of the puzzle box. Lussier and Farmer dismissed the notion of a teen-oriented Hellraiser film, stating "if we do Hellraiser, it's rated R; if they want to do PG-13 then they have to get rid of us". In 2011, Farmer confirmed that both he and Lussier were no longer attached to the project.
On 24 October 2013, Clive Barker posted on his official Facebook page that he would be personally writing the remake of the original Hellraiser and that he had already completed a deal with Dimension Films' Bob Weinstein. He also stated that he will be pushing for practical effects rather than CGI and the original Cenobite actor Doug Bradley would be returning as Pinhead. On 18 March 2017, Clive Barker revealed that the film had not moved forward: "The script was written and delivered to Dimension years ago. That was the last anyone heard until news of [Hellraiser: Judgment] surfaced."
The Hellraiser franchise was adapted to comic book form in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Three volumes are available digitally exclusively through Devil's Due Digital.