Clive Barker’s 1987 film Hellraiser spawned not only a franchise (each entry’s quality declining so rapidly fans risk suffering the bends should they attempt to binge watch the instalments), but also in Doug Bradley’s Pinhead a modern horror icon to sit alongside Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, or Freddy Krueger. The popularity of Pinhead (as played by Doug Bradley) surely stems from the character’s freshness in the late eighties. While sadomasochistic imagery has now become a fixture of mainstream genre films, it was far more transgressive in 87. Deliberately conceived to stand in contrast to the sardonic, wise cracking Krueger, or the usually silent assassins of the slasher movie. Pinhead, or ‘lead Cenobite’ as how was referred to in the script, was a Dracula-esque figure, cruel but intelligent. However Pinhead’s popularity, and elevation to lead antagonist in many (although not all) sequels obscures the real villains of Barker’s original film.
Rather than the various inter-dimensional entities that seem to exist just behind the walls of 66 Ludovico Street, the real monster of Hellraiser is house’s former resident/squatter Frank Cotton (played in his pre-resurrection form by Sean Chapman and post-resurrection by Oliver Smith). Frank is the sick, rotten heart of Hellraiser (quite literally so, at one point when he exists only as a disembodied muscle beneath the floorboards) and it is the story of his ruinous relationship with Julia (Claire Higgins), the wife of his estranged brother, that is the engine of the film’s narrative.
What’s your pleasure sir?
At the beginning of the movie we meet Frank in a foreign land bartering with a merchant for a mysterious puzzle box. When solved that box, the Lament Configuration, calls The Cenobites ‘Explorers in the further regions of experience’. The Cenobites promise to give unimaginable pleasure and pain but the experience results in Franks annihilation, his flesh torn asunder and his soul consigned to hell.
Returning to his long abandoned family home on Ludovico Street, Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and Julia find evidence of Frank’s recent habitation but think him long gone. Following a minor accident Larry’s blood is spilled on the floorboards of a bedroom. The blood resurrects Frank, but it is only a beginning of a painful process of resurrection. Clearly, larger infusions will be required.
Come to Daddy.
Julia is into Frank for the long haul and willing to kill for him, but Frank is a classic user and no earthly pleasure seems to satisfy him. Julia finds unwelcome competition for Frank’s interest with the arrival of Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Lawrence). Kirsty is a younger model, and Frank a predator who relishes the tang of depravity. In a flashback where he cuckolds Larry by sleeping with Julia after their wedding it is clear that part of the attraction is purely the transgression of fucking his sister-in-law. An attractive niece? This is irresistible.
Ultimately, it is Frank’s lust that is his unmaking. He should be straight out the door without looking back as soon as he has a man-suit to wear but his desire for Kirsty, at first sexual, then homicidal, then possibly a mix of both leads him to linger on the ‘cat-and-mouse shit’ while upstairs the Cenobites await.
This is the core story of Hellraiser, a story in which a family is torn apart from within. Can it be a coincidence that the family name Cotton is almost shared with the actor Joseph Cotten? In Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) Cotten played the classic interfamilial psychopath. Possibly. However strip away the Cenobites, stinger wielding monsters, and grasshopper munching weirdoes, and Hellraiser is as much a noir as it is a horror film. James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice as rewritten by H.P. Lovecraft.
Like many examples of classic film noir, Hellraiser features characters motivated to appalling acts by sex and desire. The interior of the empty bedroom where Frank returns from hell, and where the killings that put flesh on his bones occur is lit in noir fashion with stark contrasts and dramatic shadows. Chiaroscuro lighting erupts again in the hospital room where Kirsty solves the Lament Configuration, as cracks between worlds open allowing shafts of light to invade the gloom. Frank is often shrouded in darkness, emerging out inky darkness like Welles in The Third Man.
The cynicism and moral ambiguity of noir is reflected in the Cenobites (Angels or Demons? Pleasure or pain?) In fact heaven is noticeable by its absence, even once the credits roll for the surviving characters the world has become a far more terrifying place. However it is Julia, who is the most classically noirish figure in the film.
At the beginning of the story, she is cold and frigid, with Frank’s encouragement she becomes a classic femme fatale (albeit one to which an eighties airbrush has been applied) finding in murder a thrill more energising than sex. Even sad-sack Larry notices a change, watching a boxing match he notices Julia is unfazed by the on-screen violence, ‘I’ve seen worse’ she dryly remarks. Poor Larry is too naive to pick up on the danger dwelling under his own roof.
Claire Higgins is fantastic in the role of Julia, crafting a complex character and managing the difficult task of creating a convincing chemistry with a man who has no skin. Oliver Smith, despite significant prosthetics, makes Frank a magnetic villain. There is a delicious scene where he smokes a cigarette, the glistening muscle of his lipless mouth leaving a smear of blood on the filter like lipstick traces. ‘I can taste that.’ As sadsack Larry, Barker’s casting of Andrew Robinson seems initially baffling. Robinson came to notoriety playing the whiny serial killer Scorpio in Dirty Harry (1971), a performance so good it typecast the actor for decades. Robinson seems cast against type, however a last act twist reveals Barker’s intentions.
Hellraiser is one of, if not the, best British horror films of the eighties. During a decade when American horror turned increasingly towards horror comedy, Barker’s film was a rare example of a genre piece that was serious both thematically and visually. This was not a horror film suitable for children’s parties. By introducing imagery from the sexual underground and particularly sado-masochism, Barker gave horror a much needed injection of transgression at a time when it was becoming the stuff of lunch-boxes. You could argue that A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddie’s Revenge got there first (although director Jack Shoulder will still look at you blankly today should you bring it up) but that was a fundamentally stupid movie that played its sadomasochistic subtext for laughs.
Hellraiser is not perfect, in fact it has significant flaws. Barker was a first time and unproven director. Two previous films made from screenplays he had written had been unmitigated disasters (Underworld in 1985 and Rawhead Rex in in 1986). Clearly deciding that if his work was to be butchered, he should be the one wielding the cleaver, Barker wrote Hellraiser. In order to secure the financing he would have to not only give up the rights but make some damaging concessions.
An attempt to make the film seem more American than British is an annoyance. Some characters have been dubbed or are adopting US accents. It never quite makes sense that the clearly American Andrew Robinson refers to a clearly English house as ‘the old homestead’. In fact by the second film Ludovico Street has been relocated to the US. It couldn’t look more like NW2 if it tried.
Kirsty is not the most fascinating character, and Barker is clearly more interested in the very adult triangle of Frank, Larry and Julia. One feels the she is intended to appeal to the traditionally youthful and male horror audience (at least according to the demographic data of film studios). Before he felt comfortable being open about his personal sexuality some of Barker’s early work occasionally tends to feature rather bland heterosexual characters in leading roles. The lead character of his debut horror novel, the otherwise fantastic The Damnation Game, seems to have parachuted in from a James Herbert novel. By far the least interesting characters in Nightbreed are Craig Sheffer’s hero Boone and girlfriend Lori. If Kirsty has a touch of white bread about her, it is as nothing in comparison to her spectacularly rubbish boyfriend Steve (Robert Hines), who looks like he plays bass in The Associates. Steve is the sort of useless hero who charges in to save the girl only to be hit on the head and spend the rest of the scene unconscious.
Despite this, Hellraiser remains a strange and fascinating film. One that despite its low budget and limited setting (most of the film takes place in a single location) has the sort of epic feel that is fond in Lovecraft’s fiction. That the audience is being given a glimpse of a vast and terrifying secret world almost visible out of the corner of the eye.
Text amended from an article originally commissioned by FrightFest Originals and published at http://www.frightfestoriginals.com/frightfestorigin.html