Retrospective: Hellraiser

Adapted from his own novella The Hellbound Heart, Clive Barker made his directorial debut in 1987 with the delightfully disturbing Hellraiser.

“What’s your pleasure, Frank Cotton?” asks a merchant in a distant land, as thrill-seeker Frank pushes a wad of cash in exchange for an ornate puzzle box. “Take it, it’s yours. It always was.” Later, in a candlelit attic, Frank solves the box and is swiftly torn to shreds by chains cascading from every corner of the room.

We’re then introduced to Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) as he’s moving into his late mother’s dilapidated house along with his second wife Julia (Clare Higgins). Their faltering marriage is further strained by Larry’s teenage daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) and Julia’s yearning for a previous lover – an affair she had with the recently deceased Frank. Who unbeknownst to them, lays beneath their feet decaying. When Larry injures himself during the move, his blood trickles down to Frank’s hollow shell and he is soon reborn.

Marital Hell… Andrew Robinson and Clare Higgins as Larry and Julia Cotton.

Halfway through the shoot, studio interference reared its ugly head but was fending off for as long as possible, with the film crew altering the schedule to ensure they were “doing something incredibly bloody” when the bigwigs would visit, ensuring they’d soon flee. Ultimately, it was requested that British accents were overdubbed to American. Which led to tonal shifts, sometimes within the same conversation, during the film’s opening. Stranger though, is how weirdly this fits proceedings, giving an offbeat pulse to the vast, empty house and even adding some unintentional humour as a precursor to the grisly carnage that’s about to unfold.

And said carnage truly begins as Frank resurrects, a scene devised by special makeup effects designer Bob Keen, whose talents have been utilised on films from Star Wars to fellow horror classic Candyman and a more recent werewolf staple Dog Soldiers. As the blood from his brother’s wound slowly replenishes Frank, his arms pierce the floorboards like stems and he horrifically blooms.

“I thought I’d gone to the limits. I hadn’t. The Cenobites gave me an experience beyond limits. Pain and pleasure, indivisible.”

Julia soon stumbles onto a skinless Frank (now played by Oliver Smith), who tells of his cursed journey to another realm. While initially terrified, Julia aches to rekindle their fiery romance and agrees to lure men back the house, enabling Frank to drain their life force and once again be complete. As the death count ratchets up, Kirsty stumbles in on this grim ritual and finds herself in possession of the puzzle box, with dire consequences.

As well as Frank’s fleshy transformation, Clare Higgins is superb as she has an overhaul of her own. From the palpable marital boredom to the initial unease of enticing men, until a pushy punter enables her to feel pleasure at his sacrifice. Later on and truly desensitised, a boxing match booms out from the television and Larry ponders that his wife usually detests violence, Julia coolly shrugs “I’ve seen worse.”

Diverging from his most notable and creepy role as Scorpio in Dirty Harry, Andrew Robinson is a likeable oaf here. Harmlessly showing off at a diner party and trying his utmost to keep both women in his life happy. Rounding off this dysfunctional family unit is Ashley Laurence’s Kirsty, an underrated “final girl” who’s plucky and likeable.

“Final Girl” Ashley Laurence.

Of course, the most enduring aspect of Hellraiser has been Pinhead, simply known as “Lead Cenobite” in the early days, and exquisitely played by Doug Bradley under six hours worth of makeup. His nickname is thought to have originated in the makeup studio and on the inspiration behind Pinhead’s striking look, Barker reminisces “I had seen a book containing photographs of African fetishes: sculptures of human heads crudely carved from wood and then pierced with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of nails and spikes. They were images of rage, the text instructed.” Barker concludes;

“To rage, then; and to the monsters that embody it. They keep us sane, I think. At least a little.”

Bradley recalls Barker insisting he “do less”, eventually Bradley realised that “the makeup was so powerful, I didn’t need to sell it to the audience.” It was that brutal simplicity of Bradley’s portrayal that made Pinhead so terrifying. Drifting out from the shadows with no unnecessary words spoken, he dominates the film with majestic menace, as Barker put it “he so perfectly married threat and elegance”, despite only being onscreen for roughly eight minutes. Pinhead stands tall amongst fellow horror icons Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees and while the ending of their spat in 2003’s Freddy vs Jason was fittingly tongue-in-cheek, the alternate ending with Pinhead greeting the pair in Hell sounds devilishly good.

“Oh, no tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering!”

Contrasting other horror villains, there’s even a fairness and reasoning to Pinhead. Striking a deal with Kirsty to save her soul in return for an escaped Frank’s whereabouts. Her bargaining, however, comes with a bone-chilling warning that if she cheats the Cenobites …

“We’ll tear your soul apart!”

In a rare glimpse of brilliance in Hellbound: Hellraiser II, Pinhead also halts his overzealous followers from destroying a young girl forced to solve the puzzle box, eloquently stating “It is not hands that summon us. It is desire.” and pursues hunting the true summoner.

Of course, Pinhead doesn’t do the Devil’s work alone and his fellow demonic Cenobites are always in tow. You can usually hear “Chatterer” (Nicholas Vince) before you can see him and often instigates the torment, “The Female” (Grace Kirby) is the most bloodthirsty and is frequently reigned in by her leader and “Butterball” (Simon Bamford) is a slob and glorified onlooker.

“Explorers in the further regions of experience. Demons to some. Angels to others.”

Punk fashion, Catholicism and visits to SM clubs in New York City and Amsterdam inspired Barker’s vision of the Cenobites and costume designer Jane Wildgoose reminisces on her notes from Barker; “He wanted “1. areas of revealed flesh where some kind of torture has, or is occurring. 2. something associated with butchery involved” and then here we have a very Clive turn of phrase, I’ve written down, ‘repulsive glamour.'” Barker also insisted the Cenobites “should be ‘magnificent super-butchers’. There would be one or two of them with some ‘hangers-on’ as he put it, and that there would be four or five altogether.”

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Briefly onto the sequels … while nothing quite compares to the first time we’re properly introduced to this gruesome foursome, Hellraiser’s flawed sequel Hellbound managed to lessen their mystique by having them quickly dispatched during a lacklustre showdown.

Directed by Tony Randel (who co-edited the original), Hellbound also provided an unnecessary backstory to Pinhead’s origins. A frequent frustration with the horror genre and especially pertaining to a supernatural villain, such as Rob Zombie’s prequels that boringly explain John Carpenter’s mystical creation of Michael Myers. Here we learn that Pinhead was World War I veteran Captain Eliot Spencer and while there’s a morsel of an interesting idea in the somewhat literal interpretation of “war is hell”. To overexplain and undermine the franchises’ icon is a lethal combination in a film that then hurtles towards an incoherent third act.

Messages from beyond the grave in Hellbound: Hellraiser II.

Hellbound does have its moments, however. Deeply twisted Dr Channard is a memorable addition, later becoming an odd, wise-cracking Cenobite and in a neat little twist, Kirsty is tricked into a trip to the underworld after finding “I am in Hell, help me” smeared in blood on a wall. Assuming her late father is attempting to reach her, she sets out only to find it was Frank masquerading as Larry. We find Frank experiencing his own personal hell, an intriguing premise that’s underdeveloped alongside the desolate, labyrinth design of Hell. Thankfully there’s still a plethora of alarming threats courtesy of Pinhead.

“Your suffering will be legendary, even in Hell!”

The Pillar of Souls in Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth.

Anthony Hickox was at the helm of Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, which had a fresh slate of new faces and the basic premise that Pinhead is recruiting. After escaping the Pillar of Souls, Pinhead butchers his victims into pseudo-Cenobites with their mutations reflecting their former lives, but these incarnations are more comically playful than the outright hideousness of the original line-up.

Hell on Earth also boasts striking imagery such as Pinhead encased in granite and while he looks as inappropriate as you’d imagine in a church, when Pinhead mockingly re-enacts a crucifixion, it’s genuinely quite unsettling, even for someone who’s not particularly religious. In perhaps an unpopular opinion, these glimpses of creativity led me to prefer Hell on Earth to Hellbound.

Pinhead’s wrath becomes biblical. 

The franchise does feature another colossal seven entries, with much later outings churned out to simply retain rights but losing the essential Doug Bradley in the process. While a theatrical reboot has been in the works for some time now, more recently a TV series has been announced with Clive Barker on board as an executive producer. Echoing the thoughts of many fans, Barker expressed that he was “delighted the Hellraiser mythology is seeing a new life. It’s time the stories went back to their roots.”

Within those twisted roots, Clive Barker, cited as the future of horror by none other than Stephen King, managed to conjure the hellish magic of his literary worlds onto the screen. While Barker endearingly revealed he went to the library a week before filming to pick up a book about directing and was dismayed that “they had one – but it was out.” His lack of experience seemingly countered by the love of a genre and the blessing of a crew that were “gentle” with him, Barker insists “You can only go that far into darkness if everybody’s on board.”

Doug Bradley, Oliver Smith, Clive Barker, Andrew Robinson, Nicholas Vince and Ashley Laurence on the set of Hellraiser.

Piercing that darkness is also some intentional humour, one of the final shots of Hellraiser where Frank (wearing Larry’s skin) signs off chuckling “Jesus wept” before being decimated somehow works in a film so inherently sadistic. Barker’s vision of Pinhead with all his poise also remarkably fits amongst Hellraiser’s somewhat underappreciated showcase of grotesque body horror. It’s a tonal amalgamation that’s intensified by Christopher Young’s score that’s both thoroughly gothic yet ethereal.

Hellraiser explores the knife-edge between pain and pleasure and the ecstasy and ruin of desire. The original film ends as it begins, safe in the knowledge that mortal souls will always lust for more, with the merchant sat across from a new patron, once again posing the question;

What’s your pleasure, sir?

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