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Hellraiser: A Not So Misunderstood Masterpiece?

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

In light of the recent news that 'Hellraiser' is not only getting a big screen reboot from David Bruckner (The Ritual) but also bizarrely getting the series green-light from HBO with David Gordon Green (Halloween 2018) and Michael Dougherty (Trick 'r' Treat, Krampus) attached, we thought it might be interesting to look back on the original classic from 1987.  Is it simply a disturbing gore-fest meant to stir up controversy or is it a misunderstood masterpiece asking important questions about humanity?

In November 1986 Dark Harvest published a horror novella  entitled 'The Hellbound Heart' as part of the third volume of the 'Night Visions' anthology. It was written by Liverpublian author Clive Barker. A few years prior to this Barker had already started making progress on his 'Books of Blood' short story collections and also notably wrote the screenplays for 'Underworld' starring Denholm Elliott in 1985 and 'Rawhead Rex' the following year. Neither film did much to impress Barker so he made the decision that anything he wrote for the big screen again would have to be directed by him.

“It felt as if God was telling me to direct.” Clive Barker

The increasing urge to work in film was palpable so in 1987, with the help of a chunky investment from Roger Corman’s New World production company, he decided to put together a team to help adapt 'The Hellbound Heart' into a feature film. 

So before we delve in and disembowel the innards of 'Hellraiser' let’s do a little recap of what it’s actually about.

'Hellraiser' kicks off by following Frank Cotton to a secret location in search of a peculiar, overtly detailed little puzzle box called the Lament Configuration. We have no idea what this box is yet but right away we know that it has some sort of forbidden qualities. The hand over is shrouded in mystery. Frank is, for want of a better word, a sadist. He’s obsessed with finding the purgatory of pain and pleasure and his whole world revolves around not knowing the difference between the two. This is very much one of the most important themes throughout the film. Frank, who is a fairly handsome man in his 30’s and probably doesn’t lack for a sex life, uses the box to participate in some sort of sacrificial ceremony at his family home in England (we think it’s England anyway). It doesn’t exactly go to plan (or maybe it does) and as he deciphers the puzzle box he opens a gateway to an unknown hellish dimension, unleashing a band of horrifically disfigured and mutated, humanoid demons known as Cenobites, led by Barker’s long time theatre friend Doug Bradley. Frank is destroyed in gruesome fashion, presumed to have vanished by his family. 

Pretty amazing set up right?

Things start really kicking off right around the time Frank’s older brother Larry and his family move back into the family home. This is when we start finding out a little more about Frank’s background and exactly what kind of man he really was. Frank and Larry’s wife Julia had intimate relations and we soon find out that Julia still harbours sensual feelings towards Frank. Their sex scene flashback is passionate and insinuates that Julia shares some of the same feelings that Frank does concerning pain and pleasure, but perhaps not quite to the same extreme extent. Either way it’s made abundantly clear that Julia married the wrong brother and her resentment lingers in her interactions with Larry’s grown up daughter Kirsty.

After slicing his finger open on an exposed nail whilst attempting to carry furniture up a flight of stairs, Larry accidently drops some of his blood onto the floorboards of the attic room where the Cenobites destroyed Frank in the prologue. Larry’s blood helps to resurrect Frank’s skeletal corpse. Skinless Frank manages to enlist a doe-eyed Julia to lure men back to the house in order to sacrifice them to help him regenerate his body. Of course lovestruck Julia obliges but the Cenobites, who’s only job is to violently shred their victims to pieces in the ultimate human offering, aren’t a fan of Frank trying to escape their endless agonizing and sadomasochistic dominion. Once they get you there’s no going back. 

I first saw 'Hellraiser' in primary school. I was maybe about 7 or 8 years old and it completely terrified every living fibre of my being to the point that it joined a very short list of films that I absolutely never intended to watch ever again. I was an easily swayed kid and being hypnotized by the amazing VHS cover artwork of science fiction and horror films was my primary reason for requesting my sister to rent and subsequently allow me to watch these genre films. Obviously at such a young age my interpretation of the film had zero value, especially when watched from behind the comfort of a soft cushion. It wasn’t up for discussion at all. To me it was simply a film about a group of sadistic monsters from Hell who wanted to kill everybody. But as we all know, it’s so much more than that.

On the surface 'Hellraiser' can justifiably be described as being a grotesque amalgam of gore and sexual deviation. It certainly is a highly sexualized film greatly influenced by the growing popularity of the S&M scene in the 1980’s. 

“Sex is a great leveller. It made me want to tell a story about good and evil in which sexuality was the connective tissue...The story of a man driven to seek the ultimate sensual experience has a much more twisted sense of sexuality.” Clive Barker

Barker admitted that the design for the Cenobites were essentially a result of attending S&M nights at dingy, underground nightclubs in New York. Visually highlighting something that had never been seen in a horror movie before but also emotionally influential as well. There's lots of stretched pinky flesh over red, bulbous protrusions and the Female Cenobite has a visibly large "scar" in her neck that looks suggestively like female genitalia. I have no doubts that these were calculated similarities in order to heighten the sexual context. I'm not saying that Butterball is reminiscent of a saggy ballsack, but I'm not saying he isn't either.

“Pinhead was inspired by a hardcore S&M club in New York. It was the first time I ever saw people pierced for fun. It was the first time I saw blood spilt.” Clive Barker

Although one could also easily find religious themes flowing through 'Hellraiser', certainly pertaining to the exploration of the contrasting aspects of humanity, I think it’s sequel makes more of an effort in that realm. However the Lead Cenobite’s design could be attributed to a sinister combination of bondage and a lurid depiction of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Doug Bradley’s purposeful delivery of dialogue does have a certain biblical feel to it. Barker was and still is a powerfully emotive storyteller. His films lean towards viscerally, bloody obscenities but underneath the visual horror is a deeper, more profound horror, the horror of humanity. 'Hellraiser' is the story of a family figuratively and literally being torn apart by forbidden desires. The matriarchal figure’s lust for a prohibited love. The patriarchal figure’s desperately lame attempt at resettling his already fragmented family. The Lead Cenobite, or Pinhead as he affectionately becomes known in the franchise, isn’t actually the antagonist of this story.

That title initially belongs to Frank Cotton. An abhorrent, abusive, sexual manipulator who unceremoniously does nothing to hide his contempt for his older, and dare I say it, happier brother. However the previously innocent looking Julia bends to Frank’s seduction and by doing so she steals the title of antagonist away from right under his nose as the film progresses. Julia is the real villain. After all it’s her weakness towards Frank’s apparent promises that allow him to become reborn. An event that would never have happened in the first place had Julia not willingly beguiled and entrapped forlorn, yuppy types from quiet bars during lunchtime breaks. Julia’s desire to have Frank ravage her in bed again like that fateful night is the principal plot of the entire film. The crew jokingly referred to the title of the film as ‘What a Woman Will Do for a Good Fuck!’ and that honestly sums up her character in a nutshell. She is one of the only characters that actually has somewhat of a self induced arc, growing from mechanical stepmother and pandering wife of an unambitious bore to an increasingly carnal and murderous vixen. 

I managed to see a few screenings of 'Hellraiser' during my teens on television without ever really paying much attention, but it wasn’t until my early 30’s that I felt obliged to give it a full endorsement. I don’t know, maybe it’s because in my maturity I was able to pick it apart a bit more and see it for what it really is; a family melodrama of operatic proportions. It hits the right buttons at the right time. It definitely is a horror film, a body-horror for the lethargic that’s riddled with questions about benevolence and cruelty. It quenches the thirst for blood and guts but it delivers a heart wrenching message too. Just enough torment weaved in with the drama. Despite it’s smallish budget (it was made for just under $1 million) New World decided to give it a wide release and it ended up bringing in somewhere in the region of $15 million. A lot of the initial success is inevitably down to the marketing of the Lead Cenobite, who actually only appears on screen for approximately 8 minutes. Pinhead’s role in the movie weirdly isn’t that significant and until the last few sequences of the third act when Kirsty takes center stage you kind of forget all about the Cenobites entirely. 

Pinhead and the rest of the Cenobites act as a catalyst for the resolution of the story. Kirsty must make a deal with them so both parties ultimately get what they want. In this way they are never positioned as mindless, hellish monsters but more like wise, ambivalent, ancient entities, traits that decisively add to their allure. They are masters of pain but have to adhere to a particular set of rules. Pinhead is the judge and jury, the priest that you must pay your penance to.

“He represents the Faustian bargain: the things we desire will come at a price”. Doug Bradley

We don’t know anything about these creatures and their history doesn’t begin to be explored until the sequel 'Hellbound', released a year later. Pinhead would go on to lead the franchise into the 21st Century but he was never ever meant to become the focal point of the film series, that was reportedly always going to belong to a human character. Indeed it’s his existence on screen and his popularity that led to a franchise being developed in the first place. Doug Bradley said that he was overwhelmed by the reception of Pinhead after he appeared on the movie poster and subsequently the VHS release. Despite not being properly credited and doing zero publicity for the film’s release Bradley became an overnight phenomenon and has firmly etched his name into the horror legendarium. Pinhead and the look of the Cenobites have become irrepressibly ingrained into not just horror iconography but pop culture itself. Probably not quite to the degree of Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees but closely following behind that pivotal trio. And you certainly wouldn’t think the 'Hellraiser' success was limited by it’s relatively meager budget if you look closely at the impressive make-up, prosthetics and special effects, all of which stand the test of time and some of which are even better than what you see today. I mean that Skinless Frank full body make-up is absolutely incredible. Kudos to Bob Keen and his team. In fact 'Hellraiser' is a film that excels because of it’s smaller budget. The film looks a certain way, it’s hard to put my finger on it, but it just exudes contamination. It’s got this very distinct greasy texture to it that alludes to the actual environment that it’s set in. The Cotton household is a filthy cesspool whenever Larry, Julia and Kirsty move in. There are rats rambling about and mouldy tracts all over the walls and while I’m sure they improve the decor at some point we don’t really see too much of the rest of the house except for the attic room that Frank lives in. It’s gloriously ugly and menacingly lit up by Robin Vidgeon. 

Despite the Cenobites only having a total screen time of less than 10 minutes they completely steal the movie. Perhaps that’s a bit of a harsh disservice to Claire Higgins who plays Julia, Ashley Laurence who plays Kirsty and Andrew Robinson who stars as Larry. Inevitably audiences will generally always gravitate towards the so-called monsters or "cinematic" villains of the film especially whenever they look as cool as Pinhead does. Take nothing away from Doug Bradley, who underneath all that make-up had to deliver something truly special and he didn’t disappoint. Barker wrote Pinhead’s lines with strategic thought, limiting his words but giving them the utmost solemnity. Everything Pinhead says is important and you absolutely have to shut up and listen to him. “No tears please, it’s a waste of good suffering.” and “We have such sights to show you.” are without a doubt some of the best contextually written and delivered lines you will ever find in horror. Christopher Young’s exquisitely haunting score and in particular the central theme really does make the picture feel a lot bigger than it might’ve felt otherwise.

Barker didn’t exactly have carte blanche on 'Hellraiser'. The studio threw him a few curveballs along the way but what you see in the film could simply not come out of any other disgustingly, ingenious mind. Some believe that 'Hellbound: Hellraiser II' is a superior film, I disagree but that's a discussion we will save for a later date. Jesus wept!

- Gavin Logan

*All quotes from “How We Made Hellraiser” - The Guardian


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