“Oh, we have such sights to show you.”
I first saw Clive Baker’s seminal film in 1988, when I was around 12. Yes, I know it was an 18 certificate film and yes, I should not have badgered my parents day and night to rent it from the local video shop and yes, I know that potentially this film would give me nightmares (which it did). But the iconic image of Pinhead glaring out at you from the video cover was just so tempting to see.
It’s been over 21 years since Clive Barker’s fetish nightmare first graced the screens (with the film actually coming out in 1987, a year before my first frightful encounter with the film) and while numerous parodies and sequels have been produced, Hellraiser is still one of the most iconic horror greats of recent times. The Cenobites for my money are up there with Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers as one of the most iconic ‘creatures’ ever to be produced on screen.
Based on the short novella, The Hellbound Heart, the movie adaptation directed by Barker himself is a strange hybrid of a film. Shot in two locations (Canada and the UK), the film was produced ‘on the cheap’ with nearly no budget and a cast that, apart from Andrew Robinson, were relatively unknown to a cinematic audience.
From the first scene that has the female coenobite rearranging the pieces of ‘Uncle Frank’s’ face like a jigsaw puzzle after his initial encounter with the enigmatic puzzle box, Hellraiser showed that it was unlike any other horror film that had come before it.
With a relatively basic plot, the film revolves around the Cotton family as they move house. Like most families, the members do not really get along, with daughter Kirsty and stepmother Julia continually at loggerheads with each other. It is only the calm, collected Larry, played by the understated Andrew Robinson, who keeps the family together, whether they want to be or not.
The family also have a lot of secrets, with stepmother Julia having the most of all, as it is shown that during her relationship with the stoic Larry she is also having a liaison with his brother, the outgoing and dangerous Frank.
It’s not until we find the first unnerving scene of the film that actually takes place in the house that we discover the family are moving into that things get darker and a lot more horrific.
After ripping his hand on a rusty nail, Larry’s seeping blood flows through the floorboards of the house and into the basement where Frank initially opened the puzzle box and paid for it with his life.
With his sibling’s blood as a catalyst, Frank manages to find a way out of the eternal torment in hell he bought about on himself by messing with the puzzle box, and slowly but surely comes back to life piece by piece in what, even now, is an amazing piece of stop-motion special effects work.
By revealing himself to Julia and making her murder for him, Frank uses the flesh and blood of their victims to regenerate himself and disguise himself from the Cenobites, when they realise he has escaped their clutches.
With this relatively basic horror premise Hellraiser could have been a standard B-movie mid-80s horror affair. Sitting next to other forgettable movies such as Cellar Dweller, The Gate and The Kindred, there was a massive chance that the film would have just disappeared into the VHS ether. However, there are a few things that make the film stand out, the first being the chilling orchestral soundtrack by Christopher Young, whose use of gothic bells chiming and heavy string chords add an unforgettable soundscape to the film (which was originally intended to be produced by late-80s industrial rock band, Coil). The second, of course, is the appearance and look of the Cenobites.
Summoned by an exotic puzzle box (The Lament Configuration) the Cenobites as Barker first describes them are ‘monks’ or members of a religious order. They are ‘Theologians of the Order of the Gash’ – extra-dimensional creatures who take both the concepts of pleasure and pain to the extreme.
Nameless in the book, the iconic Pinhead is also not really given a proper name in the films either (which should be addressed in the perpetually delayed Scarlet Gospels novel), but is initially shown as one of a team of creatures with no pigment, who wrap themselves in leather and experiment on their own bodies in the form of horrific mutilation and, as noted in other tales from Barker, are aptly called ‘The Surgeons from Beyond’. While the other three Cenobites, who are again not named in either book or film but known as Lead, Butterball, Chatterer and Female, are all fascinating to look at, it is the iconic Pinhead that stood out in viewers’ minds.
Inspired by fetish clubs, piercing, and body modification, the Cenobites and the visual of a completely bald character whose head is crossed with a lattice of scar tissue into which pins are plunged at every cross section sounds like a nightmare. However, it is not just the sight of Pinhead that is so scary. It is the eloquence and methodical speech of the character that is as equally chilling.
There are 101 creature features with rampaging beasts or mindless monstrosities. There are films that have the bad guy making wisecracks and puns (looking at you, Mr Krueger) who hold little fear above and beyond that they are going to ‘get-you’. However, the delivery of all of Pinhead’s lines by the unassuming actor Doug Bradley (who you might have seen on buses selling insurance) transformed what could have been a generic monster into an eloquent nightmare with a strange sense of morality and rules.
While Hellraiser 2 and the subsequent follow-ups tried to capture the unique feel of the original, in some ways adding to the mythos of the Hellraiser characters and adding a little more storytelling meat to the bones, the original movie is still most terrifying.
Even with the film’s shabby looking production (in places, anyway), flaws and wobbly acting (and the fact that the ripping apart on meat hooks bit at the end look a bit plastic-y now), there is some truly stunning imagination and design in the film. Take Frank being ‘born’, and the chilling first appearance of the Cenobites that relies on smoke and backlighting screens as examples. What Barker and the crew lacked in money they made up for in visual storytelling and imagination – tapping into a vein of horror that had yet to be explored.
With Doug Bradley bringing to the screen one of the most iconic horror monsters of all time and Barker laying the seeds of gore-based imagination that inspired numerous other great movies, Hellraiser is a blooming great horror/fantasy film that adapts Clive Barker’s novella to cinematic perfection.
Was it worth a sleepless night for myself nearly 21 years ago? Of course it was, as now, on reflection, Hellraiser showed that there were whole new worlds of horror and fantasy for a budding geek to explore…