‘Demons To Some, Angels To Others’: Celebrating 25 Years of Hellraiser
By Keri O’Shea
How to sum up the importance of a film like Hellraiser? I have much to say on that score, yet I must have started writing the introduction to this piece ten times before deleting it all. I started by trying to sum up what a game-changing film Hellraiser was, coming as it did during a decade which generally seemed happier adding camp humour aplenty to its horror, and then I tried to explain how the film brought monsters – genuinely terrifying monsters – back to our screens. All of the above is true, certainly. But the thing I kept coming back to, as much as I really do feel that Hellraiser revolutionised the genre, and really did make monsters scary again, was my personal response to this movie. Hey, it almost goes without saying; it’s a common theme for all of us who have been writing these retrospectives over the past year, and why I was so keen to be the staff writer to pen this one. So, here’s how I’m going to sum up the importance of Hellraiser, at least for now:
Hellraiser changed my life.
Guilty of hyperbole? Let me see if I can sum up what I mean by that statement. I knew Pinhead, as he’s come to be called, by reputation, long before I ever encountered him in the desecrated flesh – and he, his Cenobites, and the Hellraiser mythos have been a part of my life for more years than I can really remember. At this stage in my life, Hellraiser is just part of my mental landscape, and not something I ever could or would exorcise. As a kid growing up in the 80s, my awareness of the horror genre was usually refracted through the knowledge and attitudes of my friends; hearsay, and images from video covers formed the basis for scary mythologies all of their own, long before we’d seen the films themselves. And so, by the time I was around eight or nine, Pinhead had joined an army of barely-understood but nonetheless powerful characters – he was already part of a pantheon of boogeymen, joining the likes of Dracula, ‘Frankenstein’, and, interestingly, fellow 80s monster Freddy Krueger. All I knew about Pinhead for many years was how he looked, what I’d been told by other kids who had themselves probably been told by other kids, and that he was going to ‘get me’. Believe me, for some time, that was quite sufficient. I was terrified before I’d seen so much as one second of the film I came to love. It’s a testament to the strength of Hellraiser’s extraordinary visuals that this could ever have been the case. And, when I finally did see Hellraiser a few years later, that frightened fascination didn’t die away; it blossomed. I liked to test myself with movies when I was a kid, always chasing that sensation of fear – but I’d never, never seen anything like Hellraiser. It does so much more than make us feel scared. It’s one of the darkest films I’ve ever known. Dark, harrowing, and intense, it’s had a unique impact on me.
It’s oddly fitting that my devotion to the movie began in childhood; so much about the movie plays out like a dark fairy story. In children’s books, there is always another world, a world populated with at best ambivalent and sometimes downright dangerous figures who can, in certain situations, influence the affairs of mere mortals. The Cenobites could certainly cross from their domain into ours, warping and tearing the fabric of the waking world (which even Freddy couldn’t do), and what did it take to summon them? Simply a game. Playing with a puzzle box. It’s hardly an idea lost on an 80s kid. However, there is a great deal to the story of Hellraiser, and it extends beyond Pinhead and his ministers. As doubtlessly important as the Cenobites are to the movie, there is so much more to Hellraiser than these daemonic arbiters – but if we can sum up the appeal of the film simply, we could perhaps say that Hellraiser is notable for the way it destroys boundaries, jeopardises what is known, taken for granted. It does this consistently, and bloodily, literally and forcibly peeling away the layers of what is perceived as normal. And nothing is safe, not even the one thing that many of us take for granted as our base line for the Self – the body.
Oh, sure, the body had been under attack on-screen for decades before 1987 came around. Gialli and slashers had carved people up, and ‘body horror’ had long since established itself in its mission to fuck with physical parameters – but never had flesh been put under such scrutiny, punished with such cold delectation. Hellraiser arrived on the scene and presented its violence as an artform; it was systematic, it had a sense of aesthetics, and all that agony could even be the key to enlightenment. It’s easy to be glib about this now, when we live in an age when even the most pedestrian teen has gone through the process of stretching their earlobes to sizeable diameters and branding can be professionally procured in many city centres, but when I saw it for the first time (as someone very young, remember) Hellraiser’s assault on the body was shocking, and the concept of one’s body being cut, torn, punctured or stitched as a source of pleasure was utterly alien.
Hellraiser never shies away from any of this, and instead, glories in it, making it the fabric of its tale. Throughout, it finds delight not only in bodily torment, but in a grotesque sensuality all of its own: Hellraiser is a profoundly immersive piece of work where all senses are catered for. In rewatching the movie for the purposes of writing this article, it struck me again just how aural Hellraiser is. Of course, we tend to remember the skinless man demanding blood to put more flesh on his bones and similar striking scenes, but the visuals are balanced out by the intense sounds. From the outset, you can really hear what is happening, not just see it. The soundscape it creates balances the visceral with the musical: almost from the outset, flesh tears, maggots burrow, insects crawl – and this is all turned up to an unbearable level in the sound mix, dominating our attention, heightening the horrors on-screen. But then, the ringing of the Cenobites’ chains is almost melodious; the solemn knell which accompanies their arrival is ominous, but still a strangely appealing sound. If Hellraiser makes an artform of marrying the repulsive with the beautiful, then its sound effects form a large share of that process. It overlays these sounds onto striking colour palates; reds for Frank and Julia, cold blues for the Cenobites; and, where it cannot make us physically feel what the characters feel, or want what they want, it ups the ante by continually reminding us of what motivates the real villains of the piece – Frank (Sean Chapman) and Julia (Clare Higgins). It’s the same thing that’s behind Hellraiser’s assault on the family in what Clive Barker describes as ‘Ibsen with monsters’. It’s lust.
Ah, Frank. Frank, Frank, Frank. Frank Cotton is the first character we meet: the man with the phoenix tattoo, a true decadent whose desires for ever more sins of the flesh lead him to the sadomasochistic hell of the Cenobites via the mysterious Lament Configuration puzzle box. And then – oblivion. But even when we think Frank is a goner, his presence dominates the film. He’s being mentioned, by his brother Larry and also by Julia; when the married couple arrive at the old Cotton family home, seeing Frank’s grimy possessions and polaroids are enough to send Julia down Memory Lane as she remembers the last time anyone fucked her like they meant it. And then, Frank isn’t really a goner after all. His mortal remains are still in limbo in the house, just waiting to be found. He starts by casting a shadow over the household and eventually takes more fleshly form, defying demons and death to do so, whilst still casting a spell over Julia, skin or no skin. In fact, Frank is so hot that Julia will even take him wearing someone else’s skin. Whatever the man has, it’s damn good. (So potent is Sean Chapman’s animal magnetism in this movie that I was too coy to watch his scenes directly for the first few years of my Hellraiser infatuation; that’s Frank Cotton for you, folks.)
But, whatever Frank had done, the Cenobites had finished him – condemned him to a death-of-sorts, leaving him powerless and unable to help himself. And, whatever you can say about Frank, his motivations are always pretty transparent. Julia, on the other hand, is more complex, brooding. You can feel you know all there is to know about Frank; with Julia, you rarely feel you know much about her. She’s a character who evidently has a very complicated internal life. Played with exacting menace by the brilliant Clare Higgins, she’s really the engine behind all the havoc which unpicks the fabric of the family, because it is her deranged lust for Frank which eventually brings him back. He could not have done any of it without her. In a way, they’re a good match for one another – so single-mindedly carnal, and Frank’s able to offer Julia something which the domestic predictability of life with Larry lacks. And yet, Julia is, I think, more scary than Frank. She has all the appearance of normality, but gets to be au fait with bludgeoning rather quickly…well, she did tell Frank she’d ‘do anything’…and in that at least she was telling the truth.
Falling victim to their actions are the film’s only real innocents – father and daughter, Larry (Andrew Robinson) and Kirsty (Ashley Lawrence, in her first film role), whose relationship is straightforward, caring and, therefore, wide open to abuse. In the novella which inspired the film, ‘The Hellbound Heart’, Kirsty is a friend of the family rather than a family member, but changing this for the screenplay was, I think, a strong move: it allows a very human tragedy at the heart of the plot to manifest, as encapsulated by Kirsty’s agonised collapse when she realises that the corpse in the attic is not Frank, but that of her beloved father. It’s horrific on more than one level, grotesque, true, but sad too – not to mention adequate justification for Kirsty’s deal-making with the Cenobites. And who isn’t sad to see them back, when they come back for Frank? It’s an exhilarating moment…
There must be few monsters who have such an inverse relationship between the amount of time they spend on screen, and the strength of reputation they enjoy. I can only really think of one horror icon who is possibly on screen for less time – and that’s the Bride of Frankenstein, coincidentally enough an early example of a reconfigured, modified body. Indeed, the Cenobites are not even given a name until over forty minutes into the movie and, although we get a tantalising glimpse of them laying waste to Frank at the beginning, we have to wait until around the one-hour mark to have them back again. We want to see them again, because we’ve never seen anything quite like them. Drawing on a range of influences (from carved African fetishes all the way through to the then-developing fetish scene), the Cenobites are coldly stylish, their bodies neatly stitched and symmetrically punctured. Once human, perhaps they haven’t quite lost the notion of aesthetics, maybe even vanity. But the Cenobites are amongst the best-known on-screen monsters of the last twenty-five years for more reasons than their appearance: a major reason for this could stem from the inimitable Doug ‘Pinhead’ Bradley’s assertion that the Cenobites are, in fact, ‘not the monsters’. By this he refers, I think, to their ambiguity. They are not just savages let loose; there are rules. Whatever they do is solicited in some way, even if the unwitting person claims not to understand the process. They merely answer the call, and then proceed with their work. Likewise, they can be sent back: everything is codified, and their universe has order. They’re considered angels to some, as well as demons to others, after all. Frank and Julia behave in a far more frantic, reckless manner, and indiscriminately kill more people.
Perhaps that is it, ultimately. Hellraiser is one of those rare horror films which is able to offer a workable mythos, a world somewhere which can be accessed and, if not fully understood, then at least coherent enough to believe in and to dread. Lovecraft gifted to us the fear that we are standing on the edge of some arcane and dangerous self-knowledge, and in ‘The Hellbound Heart’ Clive Barker explored this idea further, showing us in grisly detail through Hellraiser what enlightenment could look like. Hellraiser doesn’t give us all the answers. I’ve always felt like Barker had them, but kept them back. For instance, we never find out more about the strange custodian of Lemarchand’s Box, the man who turns into a winged demon and protects the box from destruction; hell (pun intended) we don’t even find out who the Cenobites are, or were, in this movie. But not only can the film withstand these mysteries, it is stronger still for not giving us all of the answers. It adds to the film’s alienating, unsettling atmosphere. Sometimes these terrible things just are, and we are not in the privileged position of making them safe by understanding them completely.
That’s the basis of so much good horror, and, without question in my mind, Hellraiser is a brilliant horror movie. When I watch it, whenever I watch it, I’m that curious kid again, wondering what I’ll see, then half-recoiling, half-fixating on the eerie sensory overload which I get. That wonderful thrill of fear is still there too, and it’s all down to the vision of Clive Barker and his team – in a film which would, in all likelihood, never have been made in today’s more cautious, remake-happy times. We’re lucky to have Hellraiser, then, and I hope that, if you’ve read this far, then you’ll join me in celebrating twenty-five years of ‘pain and pleasure, indivisible’.