Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What's Your Pleasure: A Look Back at Hellraiser

by A.M. Novak
“I have seen the future of horror, and his name is Clive Barker.”
-Stephen King

Thirty years ago, the soul of the horror genre was torn apart. Based upon Clive Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart, Hellraiser spawned a handful of sequels, a graphic novel, and even a scrapped video game. With the sort of out-of-touch ranting that has become typical of mainstream critics engaging with horror films, Roger Ebert called Hellraiser “a movie without wit, style, or reason” upon its release. On the contrary, there’s plenty of pleasure to be found in the 1987 film, if one would only open the box.

Shady hedonist Frank Cotton procures a Chinese puzzle box with the understanding that it acts as a portal to the ultimate state of pleasure. Unfortunately for Frank, the portal is one to what we know as Hell, a Hell that defines pleasure as only attainable through pain, administered by its guardians, the Cenobites. Upon solving the box, hooked chains tether into his flesh and tear him apart before the Cenobites usher him to an unholy realm, leaving no traces behind. It’s here that we meet Frank’s brother Rory and his sister-in-law (Rory’s wife) Julia. The couple moves into the same home where Frank’s demonic ritual previously took place before he vanished. Julia embarks on her own bargain for gratification as she sits alone in the attic room, pining for her former lover, revealed to be Frank. Through a strange twist of fate Frank is able to escape from the dark realm and return to the home, though his intact body hasn’t quite caught up with him. He is a wretched, raw creature, and requires blood in order to become whole again. Julia reluctantly agrees to do what needs to be done in order to please the man she loves. Naturally, the Cenobites are none too pleased at Frank’s departure from their pain party, and when Rory’s teenage daughter Kirsty shows up at the home, things get even more complicated.
Hellraiser is not a fast-paced slasher free-for-all. It breathes. It’s a film that allows its characters to stew in their own juices, and observes without bias as the creaky floorboards settle under the weight of its burdened players. Sean Chapman’s Frank is played with a quiet intensity only matched in gravitas by Doug Bradley as the Lead Cenobite. At the time, the only other speaking horror icon on the scene was Freddy Krueger, and so the calm reserve with which Bradley embraces the role that Clive Barker originally called “The Priest” (he was never too keen on “Pinhead”) still stands out among its peers of the decade. Clare Higgins does her part to flesh out her character Julia, avoiding the Evil Stepmother trope by adding in layers of longing and desire that inform her decisions to the audience; though those decisions may not always be the right ones, her reasoning behind them are clear. Ashley Laurence embodies the classic Gothic heroine splendidly as Kirsty, fresh-faced but fiercely protective of her father. In spite of her Final Girl-ish role in the narrative, Kirsty is a young woman with agency, unwilling to simply let the bad guy get away with it. As all of these individuals converge on a single location, the space itself becomes just as important as the agents working within its walls.
Barker cut his teeth on the works of Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, and it’s obvious in his careful application of architectural metaphor. The foreboding old house is a Gothic staple, and 55 Ludovico Place is no exception. Beneath its moaning pipes and its constant damp smell lies many secrets. Despite it being a triple-story house, the environment stifles its inhabitants, especially Julia. She has a hard time acclimating to the house at first because it reminds her of her old lover, Frank. As she sits alone in the uppermost room of the house, she’s free to ruminate on her past adultery and pine for Frank again. Unbeknownst to her at the time, it’s the same room where Frank disappeared after he summoned the Cenobites in his Faustian quest for exquisite pleasure. Though they seem like villains, the Cenobites are only born of Frank’s insatiable carnal desires. Likewise, Julia’s hidden lust for her brother-in-law is its own threat to the harmony of the family, another Gothic standby. The Cenobites may be scary-looking, but the real threat emerges from within the home. Barker succeeds in undermining the structural safety of traditional family unit like the literary gods Poe, Machen, and Stevenson before him, and he further succeeded in translating that dysfunction from page to screen.

Authors of contemporary thinkpieces praising intellectual themes in horror as if they were a new trend would do well to revisit Hellraiser and try engaging with its more scandalous sequences. The film adheres to a running theme of the confluence of “pain and pleasure, indivisible.” Julia and Frank’s lovemaking sessions are rough but passionate. Her orgasm is juxtaposed with Larry’s gruesome hand injury. In fact, the rendezvous between Frank and Julia was originally supposed to be more hardcore, according to Barker’s DVD commentary: “We did a version of this scene which had some spanking in it and the MPAA was not very appreciative of that. Lord knows where the spanking footage is. Somebody has it somewhere…The MPAA told me I was allowed two consecutive buttock thrusts from Frank but three is deemed obscene!” Barker’s art often deals not only in sexuality, but in its limits and potential. Beginning with the self-destructive nature of Frank’s unending search for a sensory nirvana and continuing with Julia’s wielding of her own sexuality to lure potential victims to her home for slaughter, sexuality is elevated beyond scandalous imagery. As bodies join together or break their embrace, so do the power dynamics fluctuate between the participants. Like the copious bloodletting in Hellraiser, the eroticism is transgressive.
The legacy of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is a lasting one. It’s been credited with recalibrating the genre; in style alone the film’s undercurrents run through movies like Event Horizon (1997), Dark City (1998), The Cell (2000), and Hellboy (2004). Horror in the late '80s was mostly comprised of Freddy, Jason, and Xenomorphs. At the time, a Gothic tale with a sadomasochism bent was groundbreaking, though Doug Bradley didn’t recognize it during the filming process, according to a Dread Central interview: “I didn’t really see the big picture at the time, and I certainly didn’t think my character would be part of a franchise either. What I did know is because it was Clive’s material, we were doing something really exciting and special. But no, I had no idea that we’d be having this conversation some 23 years later.” Who knew? Though several sequels and spinoff projects followed it, Barker’s debut feature film remains the creative apex of the entire franchise.

Hellraiser is currently available on Blu-Ray and VOD. The film is also streaming on Netflix as of this posting.


  1. "Hellraiser is not a fast-paced slasher free-for-all. It breathes. It’s a film that allows its characters to stew in their own juices, and observes without bias as the creaky floorboards settle under the weight of its burdened players."

    Ahhhhhh!!! This is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I never grow tired of defending its intelligence and clean pacing. It's one of those movies that's smart, knows the tropes it's playing with, and cashes out heavily on the goo and gore. "Architectural" is a great way to phrase that combo.

  2. I love this movie. Julia is my favourite character, she's just straight up crazy. I love her too when she returns, all sexy, bloody and undead in the sequel Hellbound.

    I read that they made ANOTHER one (the 10th of the franchise) which will be released this year. Does this mean Patrick and Mike will finally cover the series in their SMM special? I made it through the first 9 movies last year, which I expect to pay off eventually, as I'll only have 1 movie to watch!!