Sunday, April 5, 2015

Book Report: Hellraiser


Thanks to a mom with a penchant for horror movies, I was introduced to the genre at what many might say is far a bit too young an age.  If you were to take a class picture of the characters that played a major role in my childhood, you'd see Aladdin's Genie giving people bunny ears, or the Goonies posing around Sloth.  But you may be a bit put off to also find a man with pins sticking out of his head, glaring menacingly while he holds an ominous-looking puzzle box.

Hellraiser, Clive Barker's directorial debut based on his novella, The Hellbound Heart, has been one of my favorite horror movies for as long as I can remember.  The grotesquely beautiful Cenobites were the initial draw, but over the years I've come to appreciate the movie as more than just a vehicle for depictions of extreme body modification. Now, I'm hoping that I'm not going to spoil a movie that is over 25 years old for anyone, but I suppose I should give a spoiler warning now before we move forward.


Frank, a seeker of extreme forms of pleasure, acquires a puzzle box said to give access to the ultimate in sexual fantasy.  What it actually accesses, however, is a group of demons called Cenobites who specialize in extreme forms of torture.  Frank is trapped with these Cenobites until his brother, Larry, cuts his hand while moving into the house that Frank died in.  This allows Frank to return to our world as a skinless monstrosity.  In order to fully regenerate, Frank manipulates Julia, Larry's wife with whom Frank previously had an affair, into luring men into the house so that he can absorb their life essence.  Larry's daughter, Kirsty, finds out about Frank and finds herself caught between her murderous family and the torturous Cenobites.


Most people who follow horror know Clive Barker as an established horror author. He had published several books of short stories and a novel by 1987 when he decided to direct an adaptation of his novella, The Hellbound Heart.  His desire to adapt his own work stemmed from his disappointment of adaptations attempted by other directors in the past.

Barker, a first time director, paired up with Chris Figg, a first time producer to work in getting his film made. "Two inexperienced people are more interesting than one inexperienced person," Barker explained in a making-of featurette from the Hellraiser DVD.  "We gave each other courage."  They put together a script, some drawings, and some log lines as a package to get interest.  New World pictures would eventually be the ones to make a deal, giving Barker and Figg around $1 million to make the movie.

In casting the Cottons, Barker found actors of varying experience.  Ashley Laurence, who played Kirsty, had never worked on a film before.  and she explained that Barker had an interesting way to introduce her to her character.  "He [Barker} said 'Your Uncle Frank is in your father's skin and he wants to kill you and have sex with you. Probably in that order.;"

Andrew Robinson (Frank) was the most experienced film actor with previous roles in movies like Dirty Harry and Cobra.  Claire Higgins (Julia), a stage veteran, had little film experience. Barker stated, however, that Higgins was very interesting because "she had her own demons" and she accessed that to play Julia.  Barker didn't elaborate, so we'll have to just imagine what those demons actually were.

And then, of course, there was Doug Bradley, the man who would be Pinhead. Barker knew Bradley since the age of 16 when they attended school together, collaborating on a number of films and plays as students.  Bradley had the choice of playing either Pinhead (then known only as Lead Cenobite) or one of the delivery men at the beginning of the movie.  Bradley actually gave serious thought to playing the delivery man so that people could actually see him without heavy make-up.  Had he been offered the male lead, he would have taken it immediately, and as he says, "I would have been dead wrong."

Barker had some interesting notes for Jane Wildgoose, who was in charge of designing the Cenobites. She kept some of those notes, and Barker included some interesting highlights about how he wanted the Cenobites to look:

  • Areas of revealed flesh where torture has occured or is occuring 
  • Something associated with butchery involved 
  • "Repulsive glamour" 

In order to make Wildgoose's designs a reality, the actors who played the Cenobites, including Bradley, Nicolas Vince (Chatterer), Simon Bamford (Butterball) and Grace Kirby (Female Cenobite) started make-up sessions at four or five in the morning.  Being up that early, almost everyone was very quiet and subdued, except for Vince, the actor in the Chatter costume, who would jovially yell "Good morning, everybody!" as he walked on set.  About both Vince and Bamford, Bradley had this to say (with a smirk): "They're fucked up now and they were fucked up then."

Most filming took place in an actual house, with only a few very small sets being utilized for certain necessary shots.  One scene depicting Kirsty walking along the Thames river was actually shot after principal filming had ended in order to "open the picture up," as Barker explained because so much of the movie takes place in very intimate quarters.

Barker's limitations, both in his inexperience as a director and in the restrictions of shooting in an actual house, had benefits and drawbacks.  Unlike most movies, Barker decided to shoot in order so that the filming schedule followed the events of the movie.  Since he was learning on the job, Barker says that early scenes in the film are ones that he's least happy with, as he was still so green at the time.  His inexperience also lead to occasional conflict with veteran actor Andrew Robinson, who would get frustrated with Barker's indecisiveness.

As filming progressed, Barker got more confident, and was able to make more interesting choices in order to shoot within the structure of the house.  For example, in the scene leading up to Julia's first kill  Barker couldn't shoot single close ups of the actors due to the shape of the hallway.  So he adapted to film some well-done two-person shots with long takes that were still able to hold the audience's attention.

Plus, although Barker was himself inexperienced, he knew to draw inspiration from masters in the horror genre.  He owes the shocking opening sequence, in which Frank is literally torn apart, to David Cronenberg. "I remember vividly seeing Scanners," explained Barker, "which has that exploding head very early in on in the movie, which is one of those scenes that tames the audience.  I think that horror movie audiences need to be tamed with something that really delivers something intense and  audience says 'OK, we're in the hands of someone who really wants to scare us.''  Barker credits Dario Argento as inspiration a dream sequence in Hellraiser, as he was actively aiming to achieve Argento's style of surrealism.

Perhaps the film's most iconic scene, that of Frank's rebirth, actually only came into being because investors visited the set, and were so impressed by the potential of the film that they provided an additional budget of $25,000.  Before the increase, the original effect was of a dried corpse emerging from the wall that the producers described as underwhelming.  The updated version is of course much more visceral.  Much of the scene was created by filming the destruction of various prosthetic creations in reverse.

The $25,000 increase did come with a catch, however.  In order to play better in a potential U.S. market, investors wanted the film to be set in America, so according to Barker much of the "Britishness" of the movie was removed, including several actors whose English accents were dubbed over by American actors.

Whether or not it can be credited to the "Americanizing" of the movie is certainly a matter of debate, but regardless the movie proved to be quite successful upon its release in September 1987,  It grossed over $14 million at the box office, recouping its $1 million budget several times over.  There were certainly critics of the movie, however, including Roget Ebert, who opined that "This is a movie without wit, style or reason, and the true horror is that actors were made to portray, and technicians to realize, its bankruptcy of imagination."

For those (like me) who would like to tell Ebert to shut up, it should be noted that another pointed critic of the work when it first came out was Barker himself, who said that he was embarrassed by the many missteps he viewed in the movie, such as the heavy, awkward exposition in the beginning scenes between Larry and Julia.  He's softened his stance in later years, however, and now appreciates his debut effort.


"Pain and pleasure, indivisible"

Now is the time where we get sexy.  Or weird.  Or both.  I suppose it all depends on the reader.  Sado-masochism plays a central role in Hellraiser, with sex and violence intertwined throughout the narrative.  Clive Barker himself is known to experiment in sado-masochistic practices, and he's certainly not alone.  One thing to make clear, though, is that the Cenobites do NOT represent the norm in the S&M community.  Clearly, these are characters that take a premise to an extreme for horrific effect.  So if you do talk to someone who says they are into S&M, please do not assume that they abduct people and tear their bodies apart with chains and fishhooks.

Sado-masochism, or the practice of physically or emotionally hurts another for the sake of sexual arousal (both for the person providing and the person receiving the pain), goes back nearly as far as recorded history.  Depictions of flagellation during sexual acts can be found on paintings that date centuries BC.  The Kama Sutra talks of some acceptable forms of rough play, including striking, biting, pinching, etc. (as long as these acts are consensual). Instances of S&M practices can be traced throughout history in a variety of cultures.

However, even by the mid-1980s when Hellraiser was produced, S&M was buried deeply in the fringes of society.  But during the 80s, gay and lesbian S&M groups, or leather clubs, were making themselves known, perhaps making the time right for a movie like Hellraiser.

In fact, during the DVD commentary, Barker and collaborator Peter Atkins intimate that Hellraiser may have been partly responsible for bringing S&M into the public consciousness.  Barker notes that piercing and body modification were hard to find before the movie.  Now, to credit this one film with an entire cultural shift may be an instance of showing correlation rather than causation, but with S&M being much more prevalent by the 1990s, it's difficult to ignore the relationship.

"Chekhov With Gore"

Below all extreme S&M and paranormal sexual torture, Barker describes his movie as "essentially a family saga—Chekhov with blood—and that is this very small thing."  The Checkhov he refers to is Anton Chekhov, a Russian author and playwright from the 19th century whose work "lack complex plots and neat solutions" and "concentrate on apparent trivialities."

Hellraiser is indeed a simple story about the Cotton family.  The family drama unfolds for most of the movie, as the Cenobites don't appear in earnest until the third act.  Barker describes the "domestic farce" that takes place when Larry comes home from work just after Julia has committed her first murder.  "She has to clean up before hubby gets home," muses Barker.

Julia's progression in the movie is compelling to watch.  One could argue that her motivation is her passion for Frank.  "She's [Julia] in love," argues Ashley Laurence. "Her version of love."  However, I think Frank's need for flesh gives her an opportunity to tap into her own sadism.  In her relationship with Frank, she's the masochist, but when she kills, she's the one with the power and she's the one who causes the pain.  Evidence that she enjoys this sensation comes soon after her first kill, in the scene when she looks at herself in the mirror, covered in blood, and her face transitions from frightened horror to a wry, dark smile.

After this point, the "Chekhov with gore" theme trends heavily towards the gore.  The family is torn apart, both figuratively and literally, until the only person left in one piece is Kirsty, perhaps the only innocent person in the movie.  For those that argue that Larry was innocent, I agree, but both Barker and actor Andrew Robinson agreed that there needed to be an underlying rage to Larry, one which is hinted at as he's watching boxing with Julia.  His character is meant to be sympathetic...but not too sympathetic.

Random Fun facts:
  • Barker had such little experience directing movies when he started Hellraiser, he tried to borrow a book from the library....but they were all checked out.
  • Jennifer Tilly auditioned for the role of Kirsty.
  • There was a maggot and a roach wrangler on set.
  • The effect of Pinhead rising above Kirsty near the end of the movie was achieved by putting Doug Bradley on one end of a see saw and having a crew member sit on the other end.


The Hellraiser franchise has declined drastically in quality in later installments.  The first sequel, Hellbound, opens up the mythology a bit more and introduced a great new villain in Dr. Channard.  After that, though, the movies became progressively more inconsistent and took the mythology of the Hellraiser universe into realms that I'm sure Barker never intended.  None of that, however, detracts from the first film's achievement as a look at the darkness that hides inside family life.

Anyone hoping for a possible return to basics with Barker resuming directing duties will be discouraged to know that, per his own admission, "There's a very real chance I won't direct any more movies."  And this quote came before Barker suffered a near fatal case of toxic shock that left him in a coma for seven days.

The silver lining, however, is that although he won't be directing anymore films, he is returning to the Hellraiser universe via the novel The Scarlet Gospels, which is due out on May 19th of this year.  I look forward to this book's release, and until then I'll continue to revisit the original Hellraiser and enjoy the wonderful sites that Pinhead has to show us.

Further Reading
  • "Anton Chekhov."  Encyclopedia Britannica Online.  November 11, 2013. 
  • "Clive Barker tears open his soul about a Hellraiser remake." Blastr.  February 2009. 
  • "Das, Abhimanyu and Charlie Jane Anders."All The Weirdest Secrets You Never Knew About Clive Barker's Hellraiser."  October 24, 2014. 
  • "Hellraiser: Resurrection making-of featurette."  Directed by Christian Levatino. 2000.
  • Spry, Jeff. "Gore guru Clive Barker wakes from hell-raising 7 day coma."  Blastr online.  February 7, 2012.
  • Wikipedia articles on BDSM, Hellraiser, and Anton Chekhov.

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