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Sunday 5 January 2014

Punk Gothic - A Retrospective on "Hellraiser"

My review of the 1987 horror classic, "Hellraiser". The film's enduring legacy is assured, but the brilliance of the first instalment is often overshadowed by the iconography of the "Pinhead" character. Here I have a closer look of what establishes this film above most of its contemporaries and puts it in the running against today's horror...

Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) solves a mysterious puzzle box on the promise it will lead him to hedonistic and sensual pleasures beyond the mortal world. He meets the spectral sadomasochistic cenobites who tear him apart and drag him into an eternal hellish existence. Later, Frank's brother, Larry (Andrew Robinson), moves into Frank's old house. He lives with his second wife, Julia (Clare Higgins), who previously had an affair with Frank. Blood from a wound Larry incurs whilst moving into the house brings part of Frank back to life and frees him from the cenobites. However, in order to be whole again he needs to feed on the blood of the living. He enlists the help of Julia who agrees to kill for him. Meanwhile Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), Larry's daughter, is about to step into the midst of this hellish situation...

Cover of "Hellraiser"
Cover of Hellraiser
Perhaps it is the simple fact that the 21st century has yet to yield a bonafide horror classic that has made me look back on Clive Barker's "Hellraiser". Although the film is not on my list of all time horror films, it certainly stands the test of time. In a time where CGI overloads us from the lowest z-grade movie to the most bloated of corporate blockbusters, it is a good reminder of a time where our disbelief was easily suspended by good prosthetics and lighting. Made in 1987, only the lightning bolts, reminiscent of Disney's Hocus Pocus, look dated. Long before the torture porn overkill of today, "Hellraiser" sensualized cruel violence and repulsive gore in a manner that got the right horrified reactions from its audience.

The world's most successful horror author, Stephen King famously rated the film with the prediction, "I have seen the future of horror and its name is Clive Barker". Despite the film's dubious torture porn legacy in the 21st century and sequel franchise that ensued, I don't think King's prediction came to pass. This remains Barker's most famous work. However, it is a triumph for the auteur method. Barker directs the film, which is based on his short story, The Hellbound Heart, and he extends on his prose in a way that works very well for cinema. This is mainly down to the fact that he wrote the story as a move towards directing his first film, so there was a clear vision in place before studios had been approached.

"Hellraiser" borrows a lot from classic horror in an era of slasher films and science fiction, but provides an interesting layer of twisted titillation. Much of the film recalls the British gothic films of the '60s whereby a monster or mad person was kept in the attic or a cellar. Films like "The Ghoul", "The Beast in the Cellar" and "The Shuttered Window" come to mind. Those who haven't seen the original film, but are aware of the lengthy franchise that followed might be surprised at the lack of onscreen time is given to the creature known as Pinhead. Incidentally the lead Cenobite is not referred by this title and Clive Barker hated the name. Much of the film's narrative is taken up by the relationship between Frank and Julia, and Frank's quest to become fully human again.
Unlike the original story, there is little explained about Frank's initial relationship with the Cenobites. It is covered very briefly in Frank's discussion with Julia. Nevertheless, it is quite clear what has happened in the events leading up to the film's main focus.

Just as the atheistic and progressive "Frankenstein" author Mary Shelley provided us with a story that could easily be viewed as a Christian moral story regarding the evils of playing God, Hellraiser could be seen as an argument against sex. The film presents us with varying levels of carnal personality. Despite its use of sadomasochistic imagery, it is easy to identify a conservative moral message found in most slasher horror movies. There is not only a chaste "last girl" character, but also a Jezebel counterpart who acts as a servant of evil and even the evil itself can be seen as representatives of damned souls. This is not to say that Hellraiser fits into the slasher mould - it doesn't in anyway - but it arouses the surface more than it disturbs anything beneath. In this respect its use of lurid horror might be viewed as a 1980s update of 1300s to 1600s melodramas, comparable to the hellish medieval visions of Dante's "The Comedy of Errors" and the gore and cruelty of Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus". Its synopsis, of course, comes from the legend of Faust with its main tragic character having the most hedonistic of ambitions, so loathed by Abrahamic religions: carnal desire.
The film's main sympathetic character is Kirsty who comes over as a virginal young woman. True, she has a boyfriend, but we see little more than friendship between them. They have one passionate kiss, but when next we see them, they are clothed and sleeping in separate beds. Untainted by sex, she efficiently deals with the curse that has been inflicted on her family via her wicked stepmother's adultery. Kirsty is sharp-witted, fast-thinking, courageous, physically and loyal to her family. She is unhindered by and not tempted by the need to fulfil carnal desires on any level. She sees the evil for what it is and understands how to fight its advances. Her focus might be seen to be on self-preservation, but not at the expense of innocents and ultimately she is an agent for restoring order.

Larry, her father (a character known as Rory in The Hellbound Heart who is simply Kirsty's friend), is in an orthodox sexual relationship with his wife and is presented as the everyday middle class American father. Despite not breaking any sort of mainstream moral code, perhaps the very fact he engages in pleasurable sex with his wife, as we see him do, is enough to dull his senses to the horror that goes on around him. It is his innocuous accident that prompts Frank's return after all. Larry is destined to be a victim and under constant threat from the villainous Frank.

Julia, the stepmother, provides a certain degree of moral ambiguity. She is on the side of the sinners, but it is clear she has some feelings for Larry. She can also be seen as a naïve acolyte to the dark and brooding Frank who is an exciting contrast to her husband. Frank shows us the ultimate extension of the path Julia is embarking. His pursuit of carnal pleasure has left him unfulfilled in the mortal world, but his initial fate can be seen as a consequence of his carnal addictions.

An early Pinhead design by Clive Barker.
An early Pinhead design by Clive Barker. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Cenobites represent the destructive final level where pleasure diminishes and sexual identity disappears. The creatures are represented as a meshing of religious and modern extreme fetishism. At Barker's request, Dough Bradley played the Lead Cenobite with intelligent reserve. Barker saw Christopher's Lee's depiction of the Dracula character as a strong source of inspiration. The Lead Cenobite is an immediate contrast to the leering and wisecracking Freddy Kruegar, who is the only other notable speaking horror icon of that era. As is the nature of film business, studios jumped on the iconography of the Lead Cenobite and later films had him feature more prominently. The name "Pinehead" was not used by Barker, but came from the costume department. The author does not recognize its usage.

"Hellraiser" has a strong story, good characterization, a convincing cast and impressive visuals. These elements are proven by the way they are so easily applied in its first sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, as if a perfect wardrobe of structures and ideas were firmly in place for another filmmaking team to slip into and carry on the story without much difficulty. Hellraiser initially met with mixed reviews, but I disagree strongly that it lacked originality. There are some time-honoured plot elements in there, but they are played creatively and delivered with some very imaginative coverings. The tragedy of Frank, which is at the film's heart, provides us with an interesting take on the vampire legend. The cenobites, which would be exploited to their full in subsequent sequels, are wisely applied with reserve in the story. However, when they do appear they are impressive and fascinating explorations into punk Gothic art. Nothing looks clichéd in Hellraiser and I would argue that the effects have stood the test of time better than the majority of its contemporaries. In conclusion, Hellraiser may not be one of the best horrors of all time but it is one of the best 1980s horrors and it is certainly as good as the best horrors that have been produced since 2000.

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