Modern horror movies tend to feel repetitive and rehashed. We can predict the scares and jumps long before they appear on the screen. We know all the tricks of the trade. The villain appears in the mirror of the medicine cabinet, the promiscuous partying teens are always the first to be hacked to death and the innocent virgin is always spared. If you feel exhausted, rather than horrified by the genre, then it is worth revisiting a cult classic this Halloween that remains authentic, innovative, inspired and truly horrific and introduced us to some of the most recognisable faces of the horror movie world. Adapted from the short story ‘The Hellbound Heart’ by Clive Barker, Barker himself directed the 1987 film interpretation and really brings his words to life.
Hellraiser tells the story of Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman), a hedonistic, depraved young man who has explored and exhausted all of life’s immediate pleasures – he’s travelled to exotic climes, enjoyed his fair share of sexual encounters and even slept with his brother’s wife. There is no boundary left for Frank to cross, no expanse left to traverse, and so he follows his tenacious and limitless thirst for new pursuits and pleasures. His adventuring leads him to an inanimate box that seems to promise carnal pleasures the likes of which he could only dare to dream – the lament configuration. This simple, straightforward, elaborately decorated black and gold box, if solved, can reward him with untold pleasures and draw him out of the malaise and inertia into which he has fallen.
Responsive to sincere desire, Frank manages to solve the puzzle but what he finds is not the standard of pleasure and fulfilment that humanity dictates. Instead, he is greeted by the coenobites, ‘demons to some, angels to others’ but essentially ‘explorers’ and is plunged into the farthest reaches of hell where exquisite pleasure merges with inexplicable pain in a bitter and unrecognisable symphony. Years later, Franks brother Larry (Andrew Robinson), portrayed as solid and dependable but essentially a wet drip moves in with his second wife Julia – the regal and frigid Clare Higgins. They believe that the house is vacant and decide to make a go of things on Julia’s ‘home turf’. It quickly becomes clear that their union is loveless. Julia, cold and refined was drawn out by the exotic eroticism of Frank and the danger and animalism of his magnetism. His own disenchantment with a world that has nothing left with which to provoke him seems to awaken Julia from the stupor of married life and Larry is mediocre by comparison. As Julia recalls the violent and abrupt calamity of their love making, we become aware that their night of passion is never far from her consciousness and only reminds her of how unsatisfactory life is with the lesser of the two brothers.
They are quickly joined by Larry’s daughter, the beautiful glamour puss Kirsty, who has never seen eye to eye with Julia but dotes on daddy. Portrayed by Ashley Laurence, she has proven to be one of the most likeable and quick witted horror protagonists, putting her in line with Neve Campbell’s Sydney in Scream. When Larry catches his hand on a nail whilst moving furniture, Frank’s remains absorb his blood and begin to regenerate. The scene of his rebirth remains one of the most appalling, shocking and stomach churning moments of horror history and I would not recommend eating whilst watching his resurrection! Julia is drawn to the attic and he compels her to assist him with returning to a fully fleshed form, promising that things can be as they were. Now Frank is Julia’s secret in more ways than one.
It is here that Julia truly embodies the clichéd bored housewife – so bored is she that she is prepared to assist a bloodied corpse of a man just to return to the promised land of the first flush of their doomed affair! Despite this, her eagerness to assist never appears false or plot driven. We can completely buy that this deeply repressed woman has had something within herself deeply evoked by the brutish and mysterious presence of Frank. She morphs instantly into the role of an enchantress, picking up men from bars and luring them into Frank’s lair. Julia takes on the role of a real reverse lady Macbeth, initially appalled by her implication in a man’s murder, she grows accepting and then finally exhilarated at the prospect of being reunited with the one man who has presumably ever roused out any hint of the carnal in her. She eventually turns her back on any sense of guilt or the moral ramifications of her actions. She monitors Frank as he slowly rebuilds himself before her eyes as he drains the life blood from the husks of his victims.
Higgins is never entirely believable as a temptress, but she does emit a certain aura that enables her to be convincingly captivating and her transformation is riveting to watch. She perfectly depicts the ways in which boredom and inaction can conceal fantasies and wants which become deranged as they are ignored and grow into something deeper and darker. The cold freeze of her Ice Queen persona hides an icy flame of intensity and a hunger almost as bottomless as Frank’s own. The agony of her fruitless marriage and the weight of her secret turn her into a soul liberated into evil, a path she chooses. The Julia of the short story is meant to be inherently desirable. Clare isn’t quite that, but she is magnetic and chilling in a very unique way and I can’t quite picture anyone else as her character. Meanwhile Frank, feeling the anguish of his raw nerves on floorboards, mutilates the rats he shares the attic with – quite an interesting little depiction of the ‘love rat’ indicating his penchant for self mutilation in the quest for immediate satisfaction.
Kirsty begins to suspect that something is not altogether right at the house as she witnesses Julia bringing back her prey. She comes face to face with good old Uncle Frank, who has his sights set on her as his next victim, but Kirsty, intuitive as to the value of the puzzle box manages to steal it away from him and escape. Traumatized by what she has witnessed, she wakes up in a hospital bed with the box by her side and sets about solving it. She manages to open a doorway into hell which she enters, as if lulled hypnotically. Once inside, she confronts a freakish monstrosity, which she only narrowly manages to escape. As she desperately tries to close the portal, she ends up calling the coenobites to her, who vow only to let her go if she can return Frank to them. Pinhead, Female, Butterball and Chatterer, monikers bestowed on them by fans of the cult franchise, are disfigured, mutilated former human victims of the box who come as and when they are called to explore the flesh of new victims and welcome them to the sweet embrace of hell. They have very few scenes but the enthralling chill of their presence is apparent throughout and any moment they appear on screen will genuinely freeze you to the bone with fear. There is something ethereal, melancholy and deeply unsettling about their appearances. In a desperate bid to spare herself from their experimentations, she leads them straight to Frank, but Frank possesses cunning of his own, and hides himself in his brothers’ skin before the great reunion occurs. The coenobites catch him confessing to his sins and come to claim the soul that has bound itself to them.
Despite centreing on one man’s descent into hell, Hellraiser never comes across as preachy or sanctimonious. This is not a film that will tell you to go to Church or burn in hell. It is instead, a film that focuses on human frailty and lends itself more as a cautionary tale about not living outside of your means and opening a Pandora’s Box of secrets that have been boxed away for a reason. Hellraiser tells us that hell is not something that happens to us, it is something that some of us willingly seek, drawn in by curiosity and the quest for knowledge, and saddled with idle minds and boredom. By focusing on the futility of human desire rather than a specific entity such as God or the Devil, the story concentrates instead on a self led quest for hell and seems to introduce the idea that man unconsciously perhaps desires hell for some extremity of feeling to counteract the bland repetition of day to day existence. Nothing happens to Frank that he does not invite, and even as he is united with the coenobites, he licks his lips with sick anticipation at the sadomasochistic torture that is to come. Julia too, hot houses a calculating killer, motivated by her own lust. By contrast, Kirsty, whose intentions are always pure, is spared by the coenobites and faces a redemptive finish. These are honourable demons, indiscriminate, adept at reasoning and anticipating the intentions and motivations of the puzzle solvers. Pinhead (Doug Bradley) has become the iconic front man of the franchise, his character far more at the forefront that it is in the short story.
The movie is brilliant at depicting that which is hidden and needs to be brought to light; the box itself must be located and solved by someone with the correct intentions. Only then will it open itself and reveal to them the torments of the hell they seek. Frank regenerates in the abandoned attic, portals to hell emerge in walls, Frank’s heart beats fanatically beneath the floorboards – the dark, horrific hallmarks of hell that abound all around us mirror the otherwise dire, domestic secret of Julia’s pre-marital affair. Her secret literally unleashes and inflicts the wrath of hell upon herself, her husband and their home, before destroying it entirely. Hellraiser reminds us that secrets will out, and often do. Behind the facades, there is the common theme of deception; there is the obvious deception of Julia’s infidelity, their sham of a marriage but the treachery penetrates deeper, Frank conceals himself in Larry’s skin and masquerades as his brother, pain presents itself as pleasure and Julia becomes Judas as she brings back blissfully unaware men to be butchered and consumed. Frank too, betrays Julia and the two become a pair of deceptive lovers whilst the coenobites, visually gruesome, appear to adhere to a strict code of ‘ethics’ as it were, concerning who they take back to their hellish nightmare of a world.
If we look at the film as an exploration of our own moral compasses, Hellraiser seems to show us how limitless lust corrupts, it destroys people but within the context of the film, it literally opens the gateway to hell and causes Frank and Julia to face eternal damnation. Does it sound like a warning from the Catholic Church? Maybe. But there is nothing provocative or lecturing about the events as they pan out. It encapsulates the fullness and the vitality of hell and brings it into the domestic sphere. Good and evil are present in the film and metaphors and symbols abound within it; Kirsty passes by nuns on the street and the presence of Lucifer is quite strong. He appears to us as the box proprietor, or perhaps as the tramp that eats locusts and finally as a dragon. He is the tempter, the pusher, the peddler, with his innocuous presence he lets his wears speak for themselves and opens his customers up to a world of temptation and sin. He knows, as perhaps the devil does (if he exists) that man can lead himself into hell with very little in the way of tricks or motivation.
Ironically, the unlimited liberation the customers seek is concealed in the confines of a small box. No one is freed by unrestrained lust, nor rage, and so all the victims find themselves first contained, then shackled and then finally dismantled by their own needs, led there by curiosity, human frailty, desire and fallibility. None of them escape judgment but the judgment they face they bring upon themselves and draw to them. This is a self aware film that shows us that we know all too well when we need punishing, and what for. The presence of good and evil becomes intermingled and unintelligible. The Cenobites are easily identifiable if we follow the rules of semantics as the films baddies, but ironically they always emerge heralded by a blaze of light which is complicated to reconcile for those of us that affiliate the abundance of pure, white light with innate goodness. Instead this blinding light appears to signal annihilation and complete oblivion. Their brilliant visuals are saturated by the sound of sudden, warped church bells, signalling doom, and the echoing otherworldly, beautiful but sickening arrival not of judges, but of tools almost, with which the human characters can re-enact their own destruction, which they appear to long for. Pain and pleasure also intermingle, as Larry cutting his hand on the nail is spliced with scenes of Julia and Frank in the throes of ecstasy.
Frank is a saturated soul and a completely unredeemed character – so desensitised to vanilla sex, vanilla violence, vanilla life, his appetites lead him down a rabbit hole of ecstasy and agony. The choice to cast Sean Chapman, who appears very minimally until Oliver Smith takes over as skinless Frank is effective because we always remember him as the swarthy, intense, handsome beast of a lover from the earlier scenes, rather than as a bloody monster. This is torture porn before torture porn became a mainstream thing, but without any sense of exploitation, gratuitous scenes or obviousness. Frank is a philanderer but he is first and foremost an adventurer and his appetite is less about sex than it is about a lack of fulfilment with what life can offer him. Julia is a cheat, and though she never manages to be sympathetic, we can clearly see that she is not in love with Larry, nor is she pretending to be. These are complicated characters.
Clive Barker has been referred to as the master of horror for a reason. He really can capture the gravitas and significance of the small evils we commit independently and collectively, such as infidelity, and extrapolates them to the vastness of all hell. This film won’t make you rush to confession, nor will it make you give up any of your smaller scale sins, but it will make you think about what hell is, and remind you that you really don’t want to go there! Hellraiser is the perfect Halloween movie.