VHS Revival enters the darkly sensuous realm of one of horror’s bleakest creations
One of the most striking elements of Hellraiser is that the cenobites are secondary characters. When it comes to modern horror’s most iconic figures, Pinhead is up there with the best of them, and though a series of diminishing sequels would expand on the cenobite legacy, the original instalment kept them very much in the shadows.
Commercially, it was a very different story. The ’80s had taught us that a memorable horror villain was key to franchise immortality, and the sight of a deathly blue dome with nails driven into it was just the trick aesthetically. As a young rental hound I was invariably drawn to the famous image of Pinhead adorning Hellraiser‘s VHS sleeve. I would typically gravitate towards the garish canvas art that dominated those dusty old haunts, the kind that brought the majority of low-budget horror to life and in many cases eclipsed the movies they were advertising. For some distributors, canvas art was a form of promotional chicanery that covered up for a film’s deficiencies, but in an oversaturated home video market it was important to simply stand out, regardless of your product.
Made on a budget of around $1,000,000, you could have forgiven director Clive Barker and New World Pictures for taking a similar approach, but Pinhead needed no disguising. In fact, it would have been silly not to use his image as the main selling point of a movie that originally had little use for the character. So startling was Pinhead’s look back in 1987 that cast members failed to recognise portrayer Doug Bradley when out of make-up at an after-shoot party, the actor regarded as a stranger by cast and crew members he had previously spent hours working with. This was not particularly surprising. For a start, the make-up was such an image-altering hardship that each application took a gruelling 6 hours to complete. Plus, Bradley was hardly a familiar name back then, the fledgling actor almost being cast in the small role of removal man, one he initially opted for over that of the film’s most notable creation as he didn’t want to have his face hidden.
That may sound crazy in hindsight, but despite his image adorning the press material, Pinhead was never pegged as the movie’s marquee attraction. Incredibly, he wasn’t even the lead cenobite when production began, the character a mere passenger who would grow in prominence due to further make-up difficulties that prevented other cast members from delivering their lines. Initially, it was lip-licking monstrosity Butterball who took centre stage along with the receding gums eyesore known simply as Chatterer, the two bequeathing their dialogue duties to Bradley’s black-eyed demon and Grace Kirby’s wire-headed monster, Open/Deep Throat, whose aura of femininity makes her arguably the most perverse creation of all.
All these years later, it’s hard to imagine Pinhead as anything other than the leader of the cenobites, a name that deeply intrigued me as a youngster. Who were these creatures and why would they self-mutilate in such a manner? It was a concept that was alien to me. I would later discover that cenobite was a word meaning, “a member of a communal religious order”, their aesthetics inspired as much by Catholicism as they were punk fashion and underground S&M culture, a sacrilegious hybrid that would likely have sparked moral outrage if it were not for the movie’s lack of obvious iconography.
Six years earlier, tech horror Evilspeak was banned outright for an overtly blasphemous finale that saw a priest impaled with a nail from a crucifix, and that film wasn’t half as graphic as Hellraiser. By 1987, the Video Nasty scandal had long-since evaporated, but the MPAA were still concerned with “intensity of tone”, the same guideline that would see Robocop suffer from censorship impositions, most notably close-up shots of a mutilated Murphy. Much of Robocop‘s violence was allowed to sneak through due to the film’s comic book presentation and increased emphasis on satire, but Hellraiser was a completely different entity. Most notable was a trimming down of Frank’s brutal ‘tearing apart’ at the hands of our vengeful demons, who approach their work with an amoral pragmatism that defies notions of good and evil and allows Hellraiser a richness typically lacking in the realms of graphic horror.
A dark literary phenomenon like Barker was no doubt troubled by such impositions, but in reality he was probably happy to finally have a sense of control after clashing with producers on two other adapted works in 1985‘s Underworld and 1986’s Rawhead Rex, experiences that inspired him to pick up the camera himself. Hellraiser is based on Barker’s novella, The Hellbound Heart, which was actually written with directing in mind and published in November 1986 — less than a year before the release of its cinematic incarnation. Previously, Barker’s work had been disfigured beyond recognition, particularly in George Pavlou’s aforementioned ‘Rex’, which would eschew much of what made Barker’s creation so unique, ditching themes of paganism and Christianity for a straight-up monster movie and transforming the eponymous Rex from a creature of substance into a dumb beast with basic stalk-and-slash tendencies. With Hellraiser, Barker was finally able to deliver a loyal adaptation that captures the essence of his unique literary exploits, giving us monsters with purpose, and it is an experience to behold.
Pinhead: Explorers… in the further regions of experience. Demons to some, angels to others.
Fellow author and genre wizard Stephen King once proclaimed, “I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker”, and Hellraiser is a directorial debut of startling accomplishment. It is not particularly innovative from a technical standpoint, but its colourless nihilism and almost ceaseless sense of dread result in a true horror experience, the kind that had become a rarity in an era dominated by horror of the self-referential variety. It also benefits from Barker’s auteur approach, suggesting that such well-drawn characters are often better in the hands of their creator, regardless of medium. Some might point to the cheapo special effects featured towards the end of the movie — animation that was hand-drawn by Barker during a single weekend after the budgetary rivers had run dry — but overall there’s nothing kitsch or ridiculous about Hellraiser, a movie that wades neck-deep through swamps of viscera and never strays too far from the darkness. Barker’s vision is relentlessly bleak, remarkably violent, and explores humanity’s taboo desires in a way that exposes our own capacity for evil, all of this punctuated by the cenobites and the queer sensuality they exude. The way Barker unleashes them upon the movie’s suburban house of horrors, all self-assured omnipotence and creeping lights, it leaves you feeling like there is no escape, a sense of futility punctuated by Christopher Young’s colossal orchestra of impending doom.
But despite their fearsome aura, our rabble of sadomasochistic minions are not the movie’s main source of malice. That title belongs to Frank the Monster (Oliver Smith), whose vindictive spirit and incessant self-regard puts our cast of malformed monsters to shame. The cenobites are not strictly evil. Sure, they belong to the realms of hell, a place to which they cannot return without a victim to subject to the kind of torture that makes them angels to some and demons to others, but their deeds have boundaries; in some ways, their wickedness is relative and tied to necessity. Though it would inevitably become Pinhead’s adopted moniker, ‘Hellraiser’ actually refers to Frank, a self-serving sadist so devoid of empathy that he feels immune to the perils of evil — at least the Earthly kind. His callous, Grand Guignol regeneration at the expense of a plethora of everyday schmoes is positively horrifying, as is the quite astonishing moral transformation of Claire Higgins, who steals the show as Frank’s ethically ambiguous and hopelessly lustlorn Julia.
Higgins forges a character who treads a tenuous line between good and evil, much like the cenobites themselves. Julia is bored with her domesticated life and dutiful husband, dreaming of the illicit affair she had with Frank until the day he reemerges from the recesses of Pinhead’s realm to reignite her sinful desires. Julia begins as a somewhat fragile character, a person repressed by the memories of the miscreant who had once lit a fire under her, and who is irrevocably drawn to danger like a moth to a flame. When Frank sends her out to lure victims to his attic-bound trap, she is initially horrified, withering at the very prospect, but once that line has been crossed she is a very different creature, as prone to frantic hammer attacks as she is to retreat. It is clear from the beginning that her husband’s suburban life is alien to her. You get the feeling that Frank opened her up to a wickedness that altered her disposition irrevocably, awakening a darkness that she seems to long for on some level, presumably because it reminds her of the time they spent together. By the movie’s final act she has embraced that wickedness, the stimulation of the kill becoming almost sensual as Frank’s return draws ever nearer. Julia takes the phrase ‘do anything for someone’ to levels rarely glimpsed, though a female crew member had a rather blunt take on her motivations while Barker searched for a title other than The Hellbound Heart that would suit the studio, suggesting What a Woman Will do for a Good Fuck. Quite the mouthful for a marquee title, though I’m sure there were other, more pressing reasons why that particular suggestion was overlooked.
Watching Hellraiser, I was surprised by how little we see of Pinhead and his mutilated brethren. Of course, this is a horror movie, and such monsters thrive on mystique, making their screen time all the more memorable. Still, Frank and Julia are the real stars of the show, delivering the kind of profoundly disturbing performances that encapsulate the director’s despairingly amoral vision. The evolving Frank is a miracle of practical effects. His initial emergence from wimpish brother Larry’s spilt blood is still awe-inspiring, as is the skeletal tower of sinew who clings to the shadows awaiting his next victim — an astonishing achievement considering the budget at hand. After escaping the box-bound torture of the cenobites, his character revels in the process of parasitic regeneration, feeding on his victims as if slurping pulp through a straw, while nailing rats to the wall and needlessly revealing himself to his horrified niece are the kind of small pleasures he relishes in. Frank is a user of the very worst variety, a feeder on emotions who delights in the very process, and the movie’s purest source of evil.
Frank: [voice-over] I thought I’d gone to the limits. I hadn’t. The Cenobites gave me an experience beyond limits. Pain and pleasure, indivisible.
Also strangely on the sidelines is quasi final girl Kirsty (Ashley Laurence). She has all the requirements for the role, but she seems more of a commercial necessity than an essential character. That is no slight against the actress. In fact, Laurence does a fine job as the cenobite decoy toiling with hellbound dominions, though the movie is arguably at its weakest whenever she takes centre stage. If you compare her role to that of Laurie Strode in Halloween or Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Kirsty is less central to proceedings, a character who stumbles onto the movie’s central narrative rather than being at its core. Like the cenobites, she wanders on the periphery of the film’s tragic love triangle, disconnected from the excruciating emotional conflict that makes Hellraiser such a gruelling experience. There is a reason for this. In the book, Kirsty isn’t the moral princess of a morally bankrupt tale. In fact, she isn’t even Larry’s daughter. She is instead a friend of Larry’s who is secretly in love with him and attempts to unfurl Julia’s illicit affair partially for her own benefit. She is still the heroine of the picture, the purest of a stifling rabble of miscreants, but she isn’t the teenager in peril that became a prerequisite for horror in the 1980s. The fact that she is still one of the most fondly-remembered final girls in the genre is indicative of the movie’s unconventional allure.
Like most low-budget horror movies looking to make a commercial impact, Hellraiser is not without its flaws. Scenes in which we glimpse the domains of some hellish realm see events briefly lose their focus, while needlessly audacious sequences involving monster animatronics have become somewhat dated, detracting from the film’s overall fear factor. Looking at the movie as a whole, those sequences seem just a little tacked-on. They are fast-paced and exhilarating enough, offering a little respite from the movie’s almost ceaseless sense of brooding, but Hellraiser work’s best as an intimate portrait of evil and exploration of the power of seduction, proving that we don’t have to look far beyond ourselves to identify the world’s real monsters; the cenobites are just the icing on the cake. Of Stephen King’s glowing admission of Barker, legendary critic and perennial horror detractor Roger Ebert would write, “Now there’s a blurb Stephen King should have written under one of his pen names. He may have seen the future of the horror genre, but he has almost certainly not seen “Hellraiser,” which is 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.” A scathing criticism, but for me this comment works just as well as a compliment; angels to some, demons to others.
As a horror-obsessed youngster who was likely more desensitised than most, there were very few films that affected me so deeply. Halloween, The Evil Dead and Amityville II: The Possession were three that did a fine job of keeping me awake at night, and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser fell into that same category. Halloween just had that aura about it. It didn’t matter if the action was unfolding in the blackness of night or in the drab palettes of the daytime, it had me by the throat. The Evil Dead was a distinctly wicked experience that left me running for the proverbial forests before I’d even reached the second act and Amityville II was an ugly little movie that left a bad taste in the mouth and a vile bug in the brain. As for Hellraiser, I was more perplexed than anything. Though its sheer morbidity saturated my sensibilities, it just wasn’t conventional enough for me to fully grasp back then. Were the cenobites evil? They certainly looked and sounded evil, but when Pinhead banished Kirsty from the attic with the immortal line, “This is not for your eyes!” I had them pegged as the good guys. Only years later did I come to understand that such clear delineations do not exist in the further reaches of experience.
For me, Pinhead is a character who will always be shrouded in mystique. Unlike Krueger and co., he is not motivated by the urge to commit evil deeds. Instead, evil is his duty, a fact that makes the abhorrent acts undertaken on his watch all the more unsettling. It’s one thing to fear an irrational evil, but the kind that is preordained, reasoned and even logical is a much more unsettling prospect. It is this kind of strange philosophy that sets Hellraiser apart, giving us not a clearly delineated monster but blurred margins, exploring the idea that pleasure and pain are determined only by the beholder, while good and evil often manifest as notions of subjectivity.