Written by: Simon Marshall-Jones
What are the monsters of our imaginations but simply reflections of ourselves and the evils that potentially lurk within? Genre cinema is liberally littered with examples of monsters that have sprung from the fertile imaginations of writers and directors – but how often is it that, in a film featuring both humans, and their worst nightmares, it is the human that appals more than the monsters?
One such film is Hellraiser (1987), based on Clive Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart, which originally saw publication in November 1986 in the third volume of Dark Harvest’s Night Visions anthology, and subsequently re-published by HarperCollins as a standalone title. It’s a deeply disturbing, gritty and unrelentingly dark film, and it also bequeathed to us one of the most iconic monsters of the last quarter of the 20th century – Pinhead (played by Doug Bradley), along with his companion Cenobites from the Order of the Gash, all of them terrifying visions of mutilated, pierced, bloody and ruined flesh.
The starting point for the film is the search for pleasure, or rather, the ultimate experience of it. Rumours have abounded for years that there is a means by which those who are prepared to go to any length to obtain that experience may gain access to endless ecstasies. One such seeker is Frank Cotton, who manages to track down the necessary key to admission to an antiques dealer in Morocco. That key is the Lament Configuration, a strangely designed and crafted puzzle-box, possibly not of this world. After solving the puzzle, the Cenobites make their first appearance, and drag the unfortunate Frank to what most people would consider Hell.
This is one of the central points that Hellraiser makes – pain and pleasure are essentially the very same thing; just different aspects and reflections of each other. The tortures that Pinhead and company inflict are, in their eyes, the ultimate experience, the most exquisite pleasures and ecstasies that anyone could possible go through (or want). In real life, there are many who would more than agree with that sentiment – the sexual underground is alive with people who equate the two words very closely. Sex and death have always been inextricably linked, and one can almost say that for some it borders on almost being something of a religious experience (and, I would venture to posit, that some religious experiences [and practices] are very similar in both tone and result). It is no accident that Barker named them the Cenobites – a definition of the word is,
‘a member of a religious order, living in a convent or community’, and the religious symbolism displayed in the film can be overt at times, even if it is twisted. Pinhead himself says that they are ‘angels to some and demons to others’ – how much more overt can it get?
Demons to us they may be, but they are simply acting according to their natures, and their behaviour is constrained by that nature. As much as we want to call them monsters, there is one true monster in the film that doesn’t belong to the realm of the Cenobites – Julia (played by Clare Higgins), ex-lover of Frank, wife to Frank’s brother, Larry, and step-mother to Kirsty (Ashleigh Laurence). On the day Larry and Julia move into the old Cotton house, Larry tears his hand on a nail as he attempts to carry a bed upstairs: in search of Julia he proceeds to bleed on the floor of the very room where Frank was killed. This sets in motion Frank’s resurrection and the events that follow, wherein the partially resurrected Frank convinces Julia to bring him the blood he needs in order to fully return to a flesh and blood state. Julia willingly complies by luring lonely, single men back to her house, where she coldly bludgeons them so that Frank may feed.
‘The blood is the life’ indeed – a phrase that has both vampiric and religious overtones. While it could be seen to have some darkly twisted religious significance, akin to the transubstantiation of the Catholic mass, it is the coldly calculating way in which Julia obtains that blood that marks her out as the monster. She falls quickly under the sway of the newly arisen body and personality of Frank, and appears not to harbour any qualms about trawling the streets for vulnerable men to entice to their doom. A reunion with Frank, who is the exact opposite of the staid, unadventurous Larry, is her apparent motivation. In some sense she looks upon Frank as being her ‘saviour’ from a lacklustre marriage, but ultimately he represents her ‘fall’ as well, as in one of the scenes towards the end of the film, Frank (disguised as Larry) confronts and attacks Kirsty but accidentally stabs Julia instead. She then becomes his final victim, draining her of blood to complete his resurrection.
The symbolism of all this is deeply complex and labyrinthine, and one could ultimately write a lengthy thesis on the many layers of meaning on show in this film. It isn’t necessary, of course, to discern all this complexity and deconstruct it to enjoy the film – at the time of its release I considered it one of the best British horror films to have graced the silver screen in many a year. It’s a dark, gritty film imbued with a dirty sleaziness which is entirely appropriate to the themes being explored. Luckily, I saw it at the local fleapit within months of it being released and its effect on the big screen was quite devastating. It also confirmed for me the immensity of Clive Barker’s fertile imagination – here were a set of demonic beings, for instance, who made a lasting impression on this film-buff; beings who were far and above the most terrifying I’d come across in some time. The standard ‘monsters’ of the cinema (Dracula, King Kong, Frankenstein, the Wolfman etc.,) had been well established a long time before I was born and, although I loved the Universal horrors greatly, had, in some senses, become tired and formulaic. The Cenobites, however, were more in tune with the prevailing attitudes of the time. On top of that, it portrayed humanity as being deeply flawed and just as bad as, if not worse than, the demons. It put things in an entirely different light and perspective.
There have been more than a few sequels since then, each sadly diluting Barker’s vision more and more with every celluloid iteration. And now, there’s talk of a remake of the original film. Judging by many of today’s glossy Hollywood. MTV-style ‘re-imaginings’ directed by ad-men weaned on creating toothpaste commercials for TV, I don’t hold out much hope for it quite frankly (no pun intended). For sheer atmosphere positively dripping with dankness and malice, there’s no better version than the very first film in the franchise – the original and best.