Barker’s Monsters – Part One

written by Monster Awareness Month team member, Sharon Ring.

I’ve always had something of a fascination for Clive Barker. When the Books Of Blood were released in 1984 and 1985 I felt I’d discovered a whole new world of horror writing. Here was a man who enjoyed playing with the definitions of monster and monstrous in ways I had barely come across until this point. These definitions had been flirted with in classroom readings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde but, with Barker, I was given a fresh set of eyes with which to redefine my own thoughts on what constituted both a monster and monstrous behaviour.

In 1986 Barker’s novella, The Hellbound Heart, was published in Dark Harvest Magazine: HarperCollins published it two years later following the success of the Hellraiser movie. 1988 also saw the publication of Barker’s novella, Cabal, later made into the film, Nightbreed. It is within these two novellas, along with one of the short stories from the Books Of Blood and their subsequent films, that much of what I love about Barker’s monsters can be found.

Barker had been disappointed, and rightly so, by the 1985 and 1986 films, Underworld and Rawhead Rex. As he put it himself, “Everything that could have been wrong with the way that they handled the stuff was wrong.” At the time of these films’ releases The Hellbound Heart was written and published: Barker began almost immediately on the screenplay, determined to retain control over his vision as the production progressed. And so Hellraiser hit our screens in 1987.

Barker wasn’t content with the movie monsters of the time. The three big cinematic monsters in the eighties, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, were already some way down the road of endless sequels and not far off becoming vehicles for self-parody. Myers and Voorhees, hidden behind their masks, remained the silent, constant stalkers of sluts, jocks and nerds: Krueger, hidden behind his scarred face, was firmly entrenched as the wise-cracking intruder of teenagers’ dreams.

Sketch of Pinhead by Clive Barker - courtesy of Phil and Sarah Stokes.

In Hellraiser Barker offered the viewer something entirely different; the Cenobites. This was our first major look at the character of Pinhead, though Doug Bradley’s interpretation of the lead Cenobite was not to be credited as such until the second film. Pinhead’s eventual naming came from the nickname used on set and in the make-up departments. The imagery seen in the movie, both in Pinhead’s prosthetics and in the skinned version of Frank Cotton, are concepts which Barker had played with for some years, as far back as the early seventies when Barker was making Salome and The Forbidden, home movies made with almost non-existent budgets. These two short films depicted skinned men and nail-covered boards, erotica and Faustian pacts; all elements which played a strong part in Hellraiser.

What mattered in Hellraiser is that Barker refused to let us watch with the comforting notion of knowing exactly who the monster was. Yes, we had the Cenobites in all their scarified glory. They were creatures from an existence beyond our known world, tied to a puzzle box which offered its owners access to unparalleled experience. “The box. You opened it, we came.” is Pinhead’s opening line in the film, spoken to Kirsty, emphasising the rules by which the Cenobites play. Unseen footage from the film shows each of the Cenobites in their monastic cells, the walls adorned with fetishes related to their work, as they wait to be summoned to perform their duties. What they do is monstrous but, being left with the unresolved mystery of just who they are and how they came into being, we are stuck with the crucial element of a pact being made between the solver of the puzzle box and the world of the Cenobites. They perform their duties without passion, without joy; merely the means by which the puzzle-solvers can access the pleasures of Heaven or Hell.

So perhaps Frank, the puzzle-solver, is the monster in this film. He certainly looks monstrous; a skinned man slowly rebuilding himself in order to escape recapture at the hands of his tormentors. He coldly uses Julia’s feelings for him in order to acquire the blood needed to restore his body. He intimates all too clearly his incestuous desire for his niece, Kirsty, and, when he tells Julia how he came to be in his unmade condition, he says he believed he had gone to the limits, leaving the viewer to determine for herself just what those limits might have been. Still, as monsters go, he doesn’t quite fit the bill. He wants to be human again, to experience the simplest of pleasures, such as smoking a cigarette. That he can persuade Julia to kill for him shows him to be a manipulative, parasitic creature, but that manipulation works on the viewer almost as much as it does Julia. To Frank, the Cenobites are the monsters, not him.

In Simon’s earlier review he marks out Julia as the “one true monster in the film.” I’d have to disagree with this opinion. Julia is, admittedly, a petty and bitter woman, particularly in the original novella but to call her a monster because she is the one holding the murder weapon is just a little too easy. In the film, Julia displays her discomfort in what she does much more visually; we also see her attempting to keep Larry away from Frank’s presence for much of the film, despite professing to not care for him. At first repulsed by the creature calling itself Frank she soon learns to equate her original passion for her husband’s brother with the semblance of the man before her. She promised him once that she would do anything for his love and, as much as she believes she is in control in agreeing to kill for him, Julia is almost as much a victim in the narrative as Larry (Frank’s brother) or Kirsty. She is driven by what she feels certain is love, that she would do anything for her man, despite Barker pressing home the point in the novella that the sex between Frank and Julia had been as cold and calculating as rape. What Julia does in the name of love is truly monstrous but does not automatically mark her out as a monster. She struggles with the thought of playing along with the seduction of another man, though whether this is out of fidelity to Larry or Frank is open to debate. The first murder leaves her shocked and frightened, scrubbing her hands in the bathroom sink in true Lady Macbeth style. By the second murder the viewer sees her growing more accustomed to the act of killing. She is seen calmly sipping a drink whilst Frank is draining the corpse of blood in the room upstairs, a sly smile crossing her lips. Again, I am not convinced this is the smile of a monster contented with its work. This is more the smile of a woman descending into madness and unable to comprehend the fact.

Barker and Pinhead - courtesy of Phil and Sarah Stokes.

Hellraiser, then, gave us our first cinematic taste of how Barker wants us to view his monsters. He doesn’t make it easy. There are redeeming qualities and persuasive reasoning behind all the main characters and we are all capable of understanding that reasoning, regardless of whether we condone or condemn the actions of either Frank and Julia or the Cenobites. If the viewer is made to feel uncomfortable by being able to empathise with *the monster* or to see a little of ourselves in them, then I believe Barker is getting his point across. As Barker once said, “I think there’s a certain kind of fascination with The Monster: there’s love and revulsion.” This is a concept to which we’ll return in Part Two when I discuss Nightbreed and Candyman.

Part Two coming soon.

[With thanks to Phil and Sarah Stokes. Quotes in this article from Clive Barker can be found on their website. Images in this article appear with their kind permission.]

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