I didn’t see Hellraiser when it first came out in 1987; I remember it being on my radar, of course; the (eventually) iconic Pinhead staring out from the VHS cover but there was nothing about it that really appealed to me. At the time, the horror genre was dominated by slashers (the Halloweens; the Friday 13ths etc) and the monster-supernaturals (Day of the Dead; Evil Dead; American Werewolf; Nightmare on Elm Street etc).
Hellraiser wasn’t either of those but when I did eventually catch up with it in the early Nineties, it instantly became my favourite horror film, and to this day, possibly my favourite film. It also established Hellraiser’s creator, Clive Barker, as one of my favourite writers (his Books of Blood series are really unlike anything else written in the horror genre).
Hellraiser had an advertised budget of a million dollars (though it’s an open secret within the industry that budgets are routinely lied-up and lied-down). The inside gossip though is that the original budget was much lower and Barker tactically chose to blow a huge amount of it immediately when shooting started, on the Cenobites and their dark dimension (as created by effects designer Bob Keen). When the dailies went across to New World Pictures in the States they immediately saw the potential and agreed to expand the budget.
Even so, the budget was severely limited for a story that was so ambitious in scope, and the limitations show through in places (for example the sketchyanimation of the skeletal dragon at the end that hardcore fans will know to have been the fifth Cenobite, the Engineer.)
We have such sights to show you!
There’s no denying that a lot of the power of the film comes from the visuals. The production design of their home dimension – explored more extensively in the sequel – is a master-class in creating powerful imagery on a low budget – creaking rotating columns, decorated with strips of skin, blood spattered everywhere, body parts scattered on the floor, ominous chains hanging in the blue-black gloom. But it is the Cenobites who are the real visual hook of the film. A mixture of punks, fetishists (the film’s working title was, ‘ Sadomasochists From Beyond The Grave’), bikers and torture victims, each is depicted with injuries that would cause extreme pain if they were alive.
But of course they’re not.
Interestingly, none of the names by which they have become known – Pinhead,Butterball, Chatterer, and the less imaginatively-named Female Cenobite – derive from the source material; all are the creations of fans , subsequent to the release of the film.
The iconic Pinhead is played by Barker’s childhood friend and long-time collaborator, Doug Bradley, and it is his mesmeric performance and curiously-idiosyncratic voice characterisation that gives the character the eerie gravitas he needs. The origins of the character were laid in an improvised performance of a South American despot that Bradley created while he and Barker were in a travelling theatre company in the early Eighties.
But the real genius of the Cenobites is not in their appearance or their performance, it is in their concept. Like all Barker’s ‘monsters’ (Candyman, even Rawhead Rex), the Cenobites are creatures with a rationale, a raison d’etre, a perspective. They are not evil for evil’s sake, they are, as Pinhead says, ‘explorers in the further regions of experience -demons to some; angels to others’. They offer enlightenment through agony and crucially only to those who seek them out (in the sequel, when a mute girl is tricked into summoning them, Pinhead leaves her alone because she didn’t want them to come).
And a consideration of what sort of person would want to contact the Cenobites leads us to consider the rest of the cast……
No tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering
Much of the power of a horror film is in how strong the human characters are. How much do you care if Janey the Cheerleader gets chopped up by Lenny the Lunatic if she seems vacuous, one-dimensional and uninteresting? And Barker presents us with a deliciously rich supporting cast here: Kirsty Cotton, our heroine, is for me one of cinema’s great, and under-rated, female leads. She is by turns feisty, moody, sexually-assertive, resourceful, loyal, spirited, and brave. When first confronted by the Cenobites (having accidentally summoned them in hospital), despite being terrified, and traumatised by the experience of having her fleshless Uncle Frank make a pass at her, she has the wit not only to work out that they have a connection to her uncle but also to bargain with them for her own release. A true survivor!
Then we have the duo of villains – for me, it is Frank and Julia who occupy this position, rather than the Cenobites. Frank Cotton, experience-junkie, a man for whom no experience, neither of the flesh nor the mind, can ever be enough. His insatiable desire for sensation leads him to the Cenobites, but his subsequent actions prove him to be far more of a monster than they. Deprived of the majority of his flesh (which has presumably been flayed off him by the Cenobites) he has no qualms about recruiting his brother’s wife, Julia, to murder a series of men to provide him with the materials to remake his body. And ultimately even his own brother makes an acceptable sacrifice to his needs. He’s not bothered much when he accidentally kills Julia either. And Julia herself makes for a refreshing villain, particularly in her motivation: lust. She has nothing to gain from betraying her husband and murdering innocent men, other than Frank himself. And her sheer desire for him blinds her to what a monster he is. Lust is a really unusual motivation, especially for a female antagonist and kudos go to Barker for deploying it.
We’ll tear your soul apart!
The finale of the film sees Kirsty’s Faustian pact with the Cenobites starting to fall apart: Frank is returned to Hell – ‘Jesus wept’ he says, partly smiling, as chains rend him apart – and Hell starts to leak into the real world. Again showing her resourcefulness, Kirsty works out that the Lament Configuration (the iconic box that both starts and finishes the film) is a device capable of dismissing, as well as summoning, the Cenobites. But Barker offers us no happy ending: Kirsty survives (though with what memories!) but her father is still dead. And when she seeks to destroy the box, it is reclaimed from the fire by a tramp-like figure who transforms into a skeletal dragon and flies off. Clearly the Cenobites will continue to perform their dark work!
Your suffering will be legendary, even in Hell
It is perhaps disappointing that none of the material that followed Hell-Raiser quite lived up to the initial film’s potential (though I was quite fond of HellBoundand some of the stories in the comic series). But for me, the original remains aclassic, one of the best horror films ever made. Barker is currently involved in a re-working, so we will shortly see if he can improve on his own masterpiece: personally I doubt he can.
At the time of Hellraiser’s release, Stephen King hailed Barker, saying ‘I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker’.
For me, he still is.
Article originally published at https://www.tumblr.com/blog/earthworksmovie