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HELLRAISER – Christopher Young

September 14, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In the early autumn of 1987 the movie world was introduced to its newest horror franchise: Hellraiser, based on the acclaimed novella ‘The Hellbound Heart’ by British author Clive Barker. It was directed by Barker himself, making his filmmaking debut, and contains sinister themes involving sexual experimentation and sadomasochism, dressed up with a darkly romantic sheen of gothic horror. The plot involves an ancient puzzle box which falls into the hands of the amoral Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) and which, once solved, releases a group of demonic figures known as Cenobites, who then abduct and subject their unwitting victims to endless torture. Years after Frank’s disappearance his brother Larry (Andrew Robinson), Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), and Larry’s new wife Julia (Clare Higgins) move into Frank’s old house; Larry is unaware that Julia had a passionate affair with Frank before he disappeared. A common household accident results in the skinless corpse of Frank somehow being resurrected in the attic; in order to finalize his reincarnation, Frank needs a fresh supply of human blood, which the still-obsessed Julia agrees to provide. However, the Cenobites have found out about Frank’s escape from ‘hell,’ and their terrifying leader, Pinhead (Doug Bradley), resolves to bring him back – at which point Kirsty finds herself caught in the middle of the nightmare.

Since the premiere of the first film the world of Hellraiser has gone on to encompass nine further movies (most of which, unfortunately, are not very good), plus a plethora of other comic book and multimedia spinoffs, but at that point no-one knew the scale of the impact it would have on the world of cinematic horror: it was just a good, low-budget, creative, one-off film. The iconic Pinhead – a grotesque vision of blood, bondage gear, and protruding nails – has since become one of contemporary horror’s most memorable characters, and although the franchise has since veered away significantly from Barker’s original vision, it is still popular enough to endure, some thirty years later.

When it came to his film’s score, Clive Barker’s original choices to provide it were John Balance and Peter Christopherson of the underground British electronica group Coil. Balance and Christopherson had written and almost finished a full soundtrack of avant-garde synth music before the production company, New World Pictures, became a little uneasy with what they were hearing, and decided instead to commission a slightly more traditional orchestral horror score. For this they turned to 28-year-old American composer Christopher Young, who had already impressed with his genre scores for films like A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge in 1985 and Invaders from Mars in 1986, but who was for the most part completely unknown. Hellraiser changed all that, and essentially launched his career.

In response to the film’s celebration of the menacing and the macabre, Young wrote a score which is undeniably one of the great horror scores of the decade, and is in the conversation to be one of the best of all time. It’s predominantly orchestral, with a few textures and timbres provided by Tom Calderaro’s synthesizers, and what is immediately apparent about it is how thematic it is: it’s filled to the brim with melody, harmony, and interesting instrumental ideas. It’s also interesting to note just how romantic Hellraiser is at times; it’s a dark romance, for sure, and there is plenty of sweeping grand guignol chaos and dissonance along with it, but Young never shies away from conveying one of Barker’s twisted core ideas: that the Cenobites are sensory hedonists who have blurred the lines between pain and pleasure, and that on some level their victims all want to be tortured, otherwise they would not have sought out the puzzle box in the first place. As Pinhead says, the Cenobites are angels to some, demons to others. It’s an interesting tonal conundrum – how do you score scenes of literal flesh-ripping horror while conveying the underlying almost-consensual relationship between torturer and victim? Whatever the answer is, Young does it perfectly.

There are several thematic ideas and recurring motifs weaving through the score. The two main themes are the Hellraiser theme and the Lament Configuration theme, both of which appear in the spectacular opening cue. The Hellraiser theme is heard first at 0:09, followed by the Lament Configuration theme at 0:42, and both are performed with impressive full-orchestral bombast, especially from the brass section. The two themes are melodically similar, but head off into different directions once the score begins in earnest.

The Hellraiser Theme is the more romantic of the two, and generally tends to speak to the unhealthy, obsessive relationship between Frank and Julia; his sadistic casual indifference to her, and her inexplicable all-encompassing obsession with him, which eventually leads to a sickening series of multiple murders, committed by Julia to feed her tormented lover. In “Hellbound Heart” the theme is conveyed with elegant woodwinds, high strings, fluttering piano lines, and harp glissandi, and somehow manages to be romantic and intimate yet perverse and mysterious, all at the same time. “Reunion” is a horrifying variation on the Hellraiser theme for low brass, low piano, low strings, low everything, as Julia discovers the newly-resurrected Frank in the attic and yet again falls victim to his will, despite him being little more than ragged flesh on a skeleton. The subsequent “In Love’s Name” takes the theme even further down the rabbit hole of cruelty, with twisted woodwind lines and slithery, pseudo-seductive string lines giving further musical depth to the bitter lovers.

Meanwhile, the Lament Configuration theme forms the cornerstone of “Resurrection,” the cue which arguably launched Young’s career. It’s an enormous, spectacular sequence for the iconic scene where Frank slowly transforms from a gelatinous blob into a hideous, skinless, but identifiably human form in full Technicolor glory, oozing and weeping and dripping blood as it goes. Young’s music is a demented waltz variation on the Lament Configuration theme which gets bigger and more imposing with each subsequent refrain, with a rhapsodic piano and a huge complement of strings augmented by forceful brass triplets and swirling woodwinds. Later, “The Rat Slice Quartet” is a fascinating piece for a mass of strings and a solo piano, tangentially based on the Lament Configuration theme, but with a tortured, haunted quality, and some astonishing harmonic writing in the strings. The subsequent “Re-Resurrection” is another variation on the Lament Configuration waltz, but rendered more quietly, and re-orchestrated to allow woodwinds to carry the main melodic line

The Cenobites have a brutal, threatening, but enigmatic set of sounds accompanying them: clanging anvils, tolling bells, rattling chains, dripping noises like blood into a bathtub, abstract orchestral creaks and groans, all enshrouded in a bed of dark, oppressive electronic sound design ideas, and hints of the Lament Configuration theme. Cues like “The Lament Configuration,” “Seduction and Pursuit,” and “The Cenobites” leave the listener in no doubt that these horrific visions from another dimension are not to be trifled with; “Seduction and Pursuit” is also notable for the highly rhythmic, driving action sequence that emerges in the cue’s second half. Cleverly, the Lament Configuration theme is also the music you hear emanating from tiny puzzle itself, rendered on a tiny music box, innocently luring potential pleasure-seekers to their doom.

Young also allows himself time to engage in some brooding orchestral writing for other sequences in the score. “A Quick Death” underscores Julia’s treacherous behavior, as she lures men back to her house with promises of illicit sex only to serve them up to Frank as nourishment, accompanied by string ostinatos and dramatic piano chords. “Uncle Frank” features more threatening, ominous string writing, and rises to some frenzied, anguished crescendos. “Brought On By Night” is a baleful piece for cello and solo trumpet, and is this score’s ‘homage’ cue (when he can, Young hides the name of a composer he admires in one of his cue titles; in this case, it’s Bruce Broughton).

The score’s finale, “Another Puzzle,” opens with a brutal and aggressive statement of the Lament Configuration theme, but then segues into a performance of the Hellraiser theme as Kirsty – thinking she has finally defeated the Cenobites – is instead confronted with the knowledge that their legacy will continue indefinitely as long as there are those who seek out the most extreme pleasures of the flesh.

The soundtrack for Hellraiser has been released multiple times in multiple sets in different parts of the world – by Cinedisc in the United States in 1987, by Silva Screen in Europe at the same time (cover art shown here), and by BSX Records in a 2-CD set with the score for Hellbound: Hellraiser II in 2012 – each with identical content. To acknowledge the 30th anniversary of the film Lakeshore Records has recently released a new edition, overseen by Young himself, which has been re-mixed and re-mastered from the original 24-track 2-inch reel-to-reel analog tapes. The sound quality on the new version is spectacular, revealing the depth and quality of Young’s orchestrations in a whole new light, and is absolutely recommended, even if you already own the score in one of its previous iterations.

Hellraiser is a truly tremendous score, which every serious collector of horror movie music should have in their library. It’s one of Christopher Young’s career-defining scores, which should be enough of a recommendation for anyone, but in case it isn’t let me add this: when compared to the current era of horror movie soundtracks, where buzzing strings, shrieking stingers, and themeless droning is often the order of the day, Young’s strikingly elegant, deeply romantic, boldly creative, thematically strong orchestral writing is like a breath of fresh air, and reminds you what truly good horror music can sound like when it’s being written by someone who loves and understands the genre. All I know is that, if ever an old Chinese man ever asks me, “What’s your pleasure, sir,” I will surely reply “Christopher Young’s score for Hellraiser.” He has such sights to show you…

Buy the Hellraiser soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Hellraiser (1:43)
  • Resurrection (2:32)
  • Hellbound Heart (5:05)
  • The Lament Configuration (3:31)
  • Reunion (3:11)
  • A Quick Death (1:16)
  • Seduction and Pursuit (3:01)
  • In Love’s Name (2:56)
  • The Cenobites (4:13)
  • The Rat Slice Quartet (3:15)
  • Re-Resurrection (2:34)
  • Uncle Frank (2:59)
  • Brought On By Night (2:18)
  • Another Puzzle (4:06)

Running Time: 43 minutes 31 seconds

Silva Screen FILMCD-021 (1987)
Lakeshore LKS-350662 (1987/2017)

Music composed by Christopher Young. Conducted by Paul Francis Witt. Orchestrations by Christopher Young. Recorded and mixed by Jeff Vaughn. Score produced by Christopher Young. 30th Anniversary Special Edition album produced by Skip Williamson and Brian McNelis.

  1. September 14, 2017 at 10:59 am

    Great score! One of my favourites. It’s a pitty that Mr. Young not allowed Lakeshore to release any expanded edition. Maby someday it will change.

  2. romanmartel
    September 15, 2017 at 8:02 am

    Ooooh, thanks for the info on the newest release. I love this score and hear it remastered by Young himself will be a treat.

  3. March 28, 2022 at 10:47 am

    Score one of my favorites

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