From Page to Screen
Now a masterclass in the horror canon and recently rebooted by Hulu, 1987’s Hellraiser has a unique claim to fame, combining some very high-brow literary references, and, let’s just say alternate forms of entertainment that were scandalous in the mid-eighties, in what was then considered the most puerile and unoriginal of genres. Though we doubt any trick-or-treaters with rubber Pinhead masks cared about Clive Barker’s reading list. All the more intriguing as the movie represents one of the few times an author is granted the honor of adapting one of his books on the big screen. Based on Norman Mailer’s directorial career, maybe that’s for the better.
That the relatively obscure outsider Clive Barker could weasel his way into directing a film is in itself inspiring, and it’s hard to disagree with the final product. By his own admission, the independent film was a throwaway venture by industry maverick Roger Corman. Corman was famous for fostering young independent directors, writers, and stars, though he had cultivated a reputation for making silly monster movies that featured carnivorous plants and sadomasochism, sometimes in the same movie.
Expectations for Hellraiser were so low that it was not even initially slated for a theatrical release. No one believed in the project, not even Clive Barker. Only one of the actors, Andrew Robinson, had any real starpower, mostly as a bit player. Meanwhile the critical role of Pinhead was played by one of Barker’s old high school buddies, and he was so indifferent about the gig he almost turned it down. The make-up artist didn’t even like horror movies and only landed the job because he worked for cheap. Barker was so in over his head, he desperately searched the local library for books about directing. They were all checked out. So how the hell did this succeed against all odds?
Pleasure & Pain
Varying little from his 1986 book, The Hellbound Heart, Hellraiser retains the themes of salvation and dysfunctional romances, notably warning against the pursuit of cheap thrills as an ever-enveloping abyss. At the heart of the film is an undying romance that bridges the living world to the afterlife. Think of it as Ghost but for goths. Equal parts sickening and heartbreaking, the book centers on two women longing for their true love. One nobly pines in silent sorrow, the other takes more active measures.
The film and novella begin with Frank Cotton, a pleasure seeker fed up with the meager pleasures of life after having exhausted his imagination. To explore the depths of sensuality, he procures a magic puzzle box that once solved summons the “Order of the Gash”. Take from that moniker what you will. This disfigured mob is not at all what he imagined. Instead of Playboy bunnies with cocaine, he meets four sexless, dead-eyed, bald, pale emos. The first indication of what is to follow.
Throughout, Frank revels in other people’s suffering when not preoccupied solely with himself. He is only brought to disavow drugs and crime to focus on unleashing the treasures locked within the puzzle box, the Pandora’s Box allusion obviously intended. The symbolism is quite clever in its simplicity, the “rewards” locked within only possible by the adventurers’ own curiosity, as if acquitting the demonic Cenobites from any responsibility. By no coincidence, the puzzle box is solved only at each character’s lowest point, promising deliverance from all their diverse troubles just as their desperation is at its most-heightened state.
Jerry Springer Material
The charming beauty Julia and stodgy Rory (renamed Larry in the film) make a terrible couple. Julia is in love with his brother, Frank, who is everything Rory is not – selfish, amoral, and undisciplined. She is attracted by his brutality and “beautiful desperation”. His disappearance leaves her fantasizing in vain for his abusive touch, cherishing her bruises as “trophies of their passion”. The single act of lovemaking lacks joy, as if performed purely out of spite for Rory by the two parties. Having survived his ordeal at the hands of the Cenobites, Frank has broken the deal, becoming an interdimensional fugitive. The film wisely doesn’t dwell on the specifics, and it’s better for not trying to elaborate on every tiny detail. The sequel would demonstrate exactly why it was so wise a move.
If taken at face value, the film and book sarcastically echo many of the hallmarks of a Harlequin novel: A bored housewife seeks the glamor and danger that only the “bad boy” can offer. This perhaps explains why it appealed to readers, albeit existing as a cautionary tale of over-exuberant urges. In Barker’s warped tale of sexual liberation, carnal pleasures consume us, it does not set us free. Julia both longs for Frank’s choking hands and to capture him, forever making him her “pet”. Nothing in this relationship is healthy or appealing. Part of the fun is watching the trainwreck unfold, not unlike gaping at a daytime talk show. The Cenobites delight in inflicting an infinite cacophony of pleasure and pain, to them one in the same. And Frank is now dragging his lover into their world with him, emblematic of his reckless character.
Julia is depicted brilliantly by actress Claire Higgins, who is the lynchpin of the film and book. Many of the scenes climax in a dreary, dank room that serves as Frank and Julia’s refuge, colorfully compared to a “dead woman’s womb” by Barker. Fittingly, Julia is dead to the world, especially her husband, living only for a ghost. Her dream man is no less than the Marquis de Sade in blue jeans. But even her fantasy is founded in manipulation and dishonesty, both Frank and Julia using each other. Despite deceptive appearances, Barker spins an oddly conservative tale wrapped up in an exterior of gore and sexual kink. Love sets one free, but lust damns one only to a miserable downward spiral chasing an unachievable dopamine fix, “Everything tires with time, and starts to seek some opposition, to save it from itself”.
Making the Leap to Film
The Hellbound Heart is a brisk work of fantasy. Coming in at novella length, it aims for a blistering pace at the cost of some of the characters. Kirsty, reimagined as Rory’s daughter and Frank’s niece in the film adaptation, is a thin character, the book providing little substance or motivation outside of her loyalty for Rory/Larry. Her role in the film enlarged, one can only guess if this was done to better conform to the obligatory teenage-girl-vs-monster trope found in slashers. The last act unwinds a bit faster than necessary in the book. This is less of an issue in the film, not necessarily because the characters are afforded more depth, but only because all movies tend to simplify characters out of time restraints.
The movie is so well-paced, that one wonders if the novella was actually conceived as a film treatment all along. Having already penned several low-budget screenplays such as Rawhead Rex, Barker was disappointed in the special effects and how the death scenes were filmed, crediting those early films as a valuable learning experience even if considering them as failures. “When we came to do Hellraiser, I was determined to compensate for that. And maybe the visceral qualities of Hellraiser are exacerbated…”
Though one might assume the book is at a disadvantage when it comes to depicting the Cenobites’ mangled flesh and violent methods, it’s a matter of opinion whether Bob Keen’s make-up job outshines Barker’s prose. Barker takes joy in chronicling rotting decay of bodies, and despite some fantastic practical effects, Hellraiser doesn’t match the book’s grisly atmosphere, one such ghoulish line describing a character’s eyes as “pearls in offal”. In the film, it is clearly just a dude in a rubber suit. The special effects are effective without a doubt, but the nastiness of the beings leans heavily on the imagination, and the Cenobites become less and less terrifying each second they are on screen.
The Pinhead Show
What can’t be argued is the appeal of the actor cast to play the “Lead Cenobite,” (Pinhead did not earn his famous name until the second film). Doug Bradley steals the spotlight, but this too is a double-edged sword, as the film series came to rely so heavily on the character that he became the main attraction and the real protagonist, and regularly received horny fan mail from viewers for years afterward. The follow-up movie would add an unnecessary, if somewhat endearing, backstory for Pinhead, though the rest of Hellraiser II is weak and not scary. It’s possible to get a sequel that is more entertaining and polished than the original, but horror sequels are a risky bet. For every Dawn of the Dead, you have a dozen Exorcist II: The Heretic’s. It’s a stereotype among horror sequels to amp up the spectacle while toning down the psychological horror and atmosphere, and Hellbound: Hellraiser II is a perfect case study.
After the second film’s tepid response, on board only as a producer, Barker bailed on the franchise. The quality dipped dramatically without his involvement as writer or director. Following the departure of Bradley in the Pinhead role, other actors would don the Pinhead mask, none capturing the essence of the character, the franchise ultimately left rudderless. The nineties and aughts were not so kind to the Hellraiser series as the eighties. Sadly, the best thing to come out of the latter movies is the Motörhead theme song.
Both the source material and film adaptation are entertaining and thoughtful, if not quite masterpieces. And both are a great jumping off point to get into Barker’s work and the literary horror genre as a whole, but only if you have the stomach for some graphic descriptions of rotting flesh and rancid bodily fluids.
The Hellraiser series is currently available on Amazon Prime (with ads) and can be purchased on Blu-ray. The Hellbound Heart is readily available on multiple platforms as an e-book and in audio format.
Hellraiser (1987) Official Trailer
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