Clive Barker’s Hellraiser came along at a time when cinematic horror desperately needed to be taken more seriously again, needing not only groundbreaking innovation, but also it needed to go beyond our limits of what we consider taboo. While the film’s theme of sadomasochism may seem like old hat these days to desensitized genre audiences, it still stands up strong today as an imaginative experience in supernatural fantasy body horror that is as chilling, disturbing, and disgusting as it was when first released in 1987.
The American slasher film flourished in the late ‘70s, ripened in the early/mid ‘80s, but was rotting at this point with mostly formulaic offerings. The sub-genre’s Golden Age ended three years before with what should have been the final death of one of its most iconic slashers – Jason Voorhees in 1984’s Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. Sure, Wes Craven rejuvenated the template that same year with his dreamscape terror masterpiece A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Freddy Krueger would become the next big thing in horror, but it was a shot of adrenaline that would not last. Other independently produced and distributed ultra-low budget slashers had also become box office poison that would end up on the scrapheap of the long forgotten, and for good reason. While Sam Raimi’s brilliant sequel Evil Dead II would come out bursting with creativity in 1987, it was deeply rooted in black comedy. Something was needed that was wholly original with a serious tone that was deeply unsettling, and it would come out of Britain later in the same year from Clive Barker, an author turned novice filmmaker, who had only two experimental short films to his name. He would also give birth to his own famous movie monster.
Barker felt so frustrated and was left crushingly disappointed by his total lack of creative input into Rawhead Rex, the 1987 film adaptation of his shot story in Books of Blood Vol. 3. The producers would not allow him anywhere near the production, and the final cut would bear little resemblance to his screenplay. He knew that if you needed something done right, you do it yourself. He saw in his novella The Hellbound Heart, the potential it had to be made into a low-budget film. With backing by New World Pictures, and with little filmmaking know how, he would shoot for ten weeks from his own screenplay. When taking into consideration his statement in The Hellraiser Chronicles on his then minimal filmmaking skills, Hellraiser is a remarkably confident, mature, and intelligent directorial feature debut – “I didn’t know the difference between a 10-millimetre lens and a 35-millimetre lens. If you’d shown me a plate of spaghetti and said that was a lens, I might have believed you.”
“What’s your pleasure, Mr. Cotton?” the Asian merchant asks Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) in a hot and humid Middle Eastern establishment. Frank replies, “The Box.” He is referring to the antique brass/gold puzzle box that is etched with arcane symbols, sitting on the middle of the table between them. He gives the merchant a wad of cash, who says, “Take it, it’s yours.” Frank does just that, and after getting up and taking one last look at the merchant, he walks away. Unbeknownst to Frank, the merchant then says, “It always was.”
The pleasure of Frank is also his pain. In a dark room, sitting on the floor surrounded by a circle of lit candles, Frank attempts to solve the puzzle box. As he is about to finish it, we see something stirring behind the walls – a blue light that signifies something is about to enter our world. When moving the final piece of the puzzle into place, chain hooks fly out of the box, digging into Frank’s flesh. The camera then goes to the exterior of a house to establish the setting, and then it goes to the interior to show us Frank’s suitcase and belongings next to a mattress on the floor to tell us he has been crashing there. We see a close-up shot of a figurine of a couple making love, as a fly crawls towards it.
Back in the darkened room, hanging from the ceiling, there are now chain hooks everywhere with Frank’s flesh hanging from them, and there are spinning black pillars covered with chains and body parts. There is gore everywhere on the floor, as every inch of Frank has been ripped to pieces. We see strange out-worldly beings clad in black leather, much like bondage gear. One of them that has grey skin, and whose face and head is embedded with nails, reaches down to piece together Frank’s face. Picking up the puzzle box, the being changes it back to its original shape, and when it reverts they are sent back through the doorway to their dimension, along with everything else, and the room is now bare as it was before.
With these opening events, Clive Barker has established a story of fantasy horror that exists on the planes of our world and another existence, with aspects of Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. They were, respectively, 17th and 18th century authors who wrote about sexual sadism; Sade actually practised it, and Sacher-Masoch fantasized about it in his work. The term sadomasochism is derived from their names, hence, the abbreviation S&M. It is interesting to note that in The Hellbound Heart, a backstory is provided for the puzzle box – the Lemarchand Configuration – that alludes to Marquis de Sade having once been in possession of it. It is implied he actually used it, and that his horrific experiences inspired the writing of his infamous book The 120 Days of Sodom.
The act of sexual sadism involves the receipt or infliction of pain purely for pleasure, and the term sadomasochist applies to both the recipient and practitioners of the pain. Therefore, while the out-worldly beings – the Cenobites – are obviously the practitioners, Frank is also a sadomasochist, as he is the receiver of the pain for his pleasure. He is a jaded hedonist and sexual deviant, his obsession evident from the figurine of the couple making love. It was never enough for him, having done everything he could possibly imagine, until he opened the box and met the Cenobites. As a smoking “Skinless” Frank (Oliver Smith) relates later in the film – “I thought I’d gone to the limits. I hadn’t.” The Cenobites gave me an experience beyond limits… pain and pleasure, indivisible.” While sadomasochism might not be the taboo hot topic now as it was thirty years ago, as it is more widely accepted in today’s society as a sexual act between consenting adults in their personal lives, it is taken to the extreme here with graphic depictions of body horror, entailing the total destruction of human flesh.
Sadomasochists can also switch between roles, so it is fitting that Frank is one of two humans here, which embody two characters in some of Marquis de Sade’s most famous work, who are the real antagonists, not the demonic Cenobites, who are bit part players as secondary villains. This makes it even more impressive that the lead cenobite (Doug Bradley), who would later become known as Pinhead, went on to become a major horror icon on the back of just six appearances here, and for being the film’s posterboy. All this will be elaborated upon in part 2 of this feature.
After the Cenobites have left our world, Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his second wife Julia (Clare Higgins) move into the house, as it is the Cotton’s childhood home. From the subtly inserted exposition in the couple’s conversation, we learn they are having material problems, and that moving here is supposed to be a fresh start for them. Robinson who portrays Larry is an American actor. He says to Julia “you’re back on your own turf.” Higgins is an English actress, and speaks with her native accent here, and what with the obvious locales of England, the film was supposed to be set in the country of its production. The thing is New World thought it would be more marketable to have a US setting, so they dubbed the actors portraying peripheral characters with the voices of American actors. However, it only makes for annoying inconsistences, and as a result, the story never knows its true geography.
Larry and Julia discover Frank’s belongings. When Larry hears the phone ringing, he goes to answer it. It is his daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), who shows reluctance to stay with them, and has found a nearby room. Julia finds a small box in Frank’s suitcase that contains photos of Frank with a woman. Later, Kirsty comes to visit while Larry and the removal men struggle to move a mattress up the narrow staircase. This mattress plays a significant role in the epic sequel/companion piece that followed the next year – Hellbound: Hellraiser II. We learn from Kirsty’s visit that Julia is actually her stepmother, and that her birth mother died.
Julia takes out from a pocket one of the photos of Frank she has kept, and tears it to take out the image of the woman’s face. In a montage of flashbacks of Julia’s memories, we learn that her and Frank had a mad passionate affair. Barker lends loving detail to this, perfectly supplemented by Christopher Young’s powerful score for emotional effect. When Larry badly cuts his hand, scraping it past an old nail in the staircase while trying to move the mattress, blood comes gushing out. He goes upstairs to find Julia, who is in the room where Frank met his grisly demise. Larry’s blood spills on the floor, but instead of remaining there, the floorboards soak it up. As Julia and Kirsty take Larry to the hospital, we witness the gooey resurrection of Frank, one of Hellraiser’s true villains that will turn Julia into the other.
To be continued.