This is one of the sickest and most depraved horror films of its time, and I love every minute of it. Where other films had only touched on the barest suggestion of the link between sex and death, Hellraiser shoves that fact right in your face.
Frank Cotton (who starts out the film as the main character) is a soulless man who lives only for life's pleasures. He will go to great lengths to satisfy his lusts, and thinks nothing of who he may be stepping on to get there. He is offered a small, strange puzzle box called The Lament Configuration by a strange man in what looks and sounds to be a Mid Eastern market. The box, he is promised, will open the gates to a world of pleasures that no mortal can possibly imagine. Frank takes the box, but he doesn't understand that the pleasures the box offers are to the demons who live within it. The Cenobites, sadomasochistic creatures who live eternally beyond the gates that the box can open and close, take great pleasure in ensnaring new human victims to toy with, imprisoning them forever in a labyrinth of pain and suffering. Frank disappears, and many months later, his brother and sister-in-law come to live in the abandoned home.
The film then switches gears and gives us a new main character: Julia. Julia, the wife of Frank Cottons brother Larry, is a cold woman. Beautiful and immaculate, she is icy and distant and seems to derive no pleasure from anything, least of all her husband and his daughter from a previous marriage, Kirsty. Julia's only private joy are the memories she has of Frank, with whom she once had an affair. Frank seems to be the only man who was never intimidated by Julia, treating her roughly and breaking down her defenses. Little does Julia know that Frank never left the house; he is upstairs, in the attic, having escaped from the Cenobites and now biding his time until he can return to a world of flesh and blood. When Larry accidentally injures himself and bleeds on the floor of the attic, Frank is brought back, feeding on the fluid and slowly regenerating, growing back bones, muscle and skin. Julia soon discovers the terrible secret in the attic. After her initial shock and disgust, she agrees to help Frank, for whom she still lusts, and begins bringing him men she picks up in bars. She bludgeons them to death and Frank feeds on them, each one helping him in his regeneration.
The film then switches points of view once more and Kirsty becomes the main character. Kirsty, who has never liked the pretentious, frigid Julia, becomes suspicious. Her suspicions are soon confirmed when she comes face to face with "Uncle Frank" and barely escapes his bloody clutches, the Lament Configuration in her hand. She accidentally opens it, and when the demons within, led by the now-famous Pinhead, threaten to take her back with them to their dimension, she makes a deal: she will lead them to Frank, and they can have him instead of her. From there on out, it is a countdown; will Kirsty find Frank in time? Can her father be saved from the adulterous couple plotting against him in his own house? Or will it be too late for all of them?
This is another sex-equals-death film, but with a slightly updated feel. Julia is Bad; she cheats on her husband and likes her sex rough. Kirsty is Good, but she is no virgin, living with her boyfriend and eagerly engaging in premarital sex. Larry, a dull-as-paste husband who seems to genuinely love his wife but doesn't quite understand how to treat a woman, falls victim to his own blandness. He never sees what's coming because he possesses no imagination, no foresight; he is just the everyday, mundane man mowed under by his own unspectacular existence. Frank is the ultimate Bad; he is a user. He likes sadism, but not when it is turned on him. The Cenobites are the real reason this film was so successful; expressionless zombies in black leather and fetish wear. Led by the majestic Pinhead, they come into our world equipped with chains and hooks and all manner of painful devices, literally ripping their victims apart without batting an eye. They are what Frank wants to be, but Frank is not strong enough. He collapses beneath the weight of his own ego; he wants to think he is a god, but he is only an insect after all.
This film received an X rating when it was first released, but seems pretty tame now. The gore effects are only a tad dated, but they're still quite shocking. I think the X rating might have been due more to the films unrelenting sadism than anything else. It's sick and remorseless, but that's not to say it's bad. It's innovative. Nothing like it had been seen up to that time, and it still remains an original. It never imitates; it's all fresh and frighteningly new and should be appreciated for that if nothing else. Followed by one pretty good sequel and a handful of really bad ones, this first installment remains the best. Should be seen at least once.