“The Cenobites’ exploration of the outer limits of pleasure and pain attains something of the transcendent and numinous.”
Aside from books, there’s one thing that’s usually a major influence on writers of horror – film. This shouldn’t come as any surprise – books, despite being composed solely of words printed on pages, are, just like films, essentially a form of visual media, albeit the images are played out in the reader’s head. Ask any author of the darker shades of fiction to come up with a list of their prime inspirations for becoming writers and you can guarantee there will be a couple of films in amongst the books and stories.
I’m no exception to this, even though I’m a publisher rather than a writer. I’ve noted elsewhere some of the reasons why I got into horror but in this article I will share with you my thoughts on the one film that shifted my perceptions of horror cinema, especially British horror cinema. And, in an odd coincidence, the director of the film is the same man who ripped apart my ideas of what horror literature was, presenting me with new possibilities and vistas. That man is Clive Barker, and the film is Hellraiser.
Even when I was a young teenager, my experience with (and lasting impression of) British horror cinema was that it was somehow quite parochial, refined, and genteel, but also that they were very well crafted despite their limitations. Admittedly, I was only familiar with the Hammer films that occasionally found themselves aired on TV in their cut form. Much of the attraction at such a tender age focused mainly on the titles: To the Devil a Daughter, The Devil Rides Out, Dracula Prince of Darkness, Taste the Blood of Dracula and The Horror of Frankenstein. They promised much to a boy in his early teens but very rarely delivered. The blood, what there was of it, and the creatures (and the subtle hints of sexuality) managed to get the pulse racing, yes, but I still came away with a vague sense of dissatisfaction nevertheless. They were lacking something ‘other’, which in hindsight I can now see as being realism.
American films, on the other hand, even those at the lower end of the scale, appeared to be painted on much broader canvases. To a young boy, they were everything that I wanted out of a horror film – imagination, creativity and scares. Yet, if I look at them today, they lack realism just as much as British films did and their sensibilities weren’t quite as refined as the Hammer films – perhaps I was blinded by the fact that they were made in another country, where people had different ideas and where everything was bigger and louder. I was certainly blind to their shortcomings, succumbing to the superficial flash and bang that inevitably comprises such films from the Dream Factory of Northern California.
I suppose that, even then, comparisons with what Hollywood was producing, and the expectations resulting from the kind of fare being released by the US studios, were unfair, given the difference in budgets and working methods. But then, in 1987, along came a British/American film which gave us the best of both worlds. Even given that it was a co-production, it not only met those expectations, but exceeded them, and in the process reshaped my view of what the UK could put out there if given the creative room (and budget).
Literary Origins – The Hellbound Heart
That film, as I mentioned earlier, was Hellraiser – based on Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart, originally published in 1986 by Darkest Harvest in the third of their Night Visions anthologies. The film takes us to places very rarely explored so explicitly on celluloid: sadomasochism, the nature, meaning and pursuit of pleasure and pain, Heaven and Hell and, perhaps, most importantly, the true face of evil and monstrosity (a theme explored much more deeply in one of Barker’s later films, Nightbreed). Apart from that, its other claim to fame is that it introduced us to one of the late 20th century’s most iconic ‘monsters’, Pinhead (the reason for the inverted commas around the word monsters will be explained later) – but more on him later.
“It’s a complex film, summarising the plot is a task in itself.”
As hinted at in the above, it’s a complex film; summarising the plot is a task in itself, especially if one wants to avoid writing reams of description. It opens with a man, Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman), an unashamed hedonist and avowed seeker of pleasure, who has managed to acquire a fabled puzzle box (the Lament Configuration or Lemarchand’s box, after Philip Lemarchand, a maker of mechanical birds, who constructed it in the 18th century for the Duc de l’Isle) the solution to which offers the solver access to unbridled pleasures. He duly solves the puzzle, in a ritually-prepared room in his house. However, this puzzle is no ordinary diversion, meant for a rainy afternoon; it’s a gateway, a portal to another dimension, and in solving it, Frank allows that dimension to intrude upon the one we know. Contrary to the legend, the beings he calls up are neither angels nor demons but creatures called Cenobites, a scarred and flayed mixture of both the angelic and demonic. Frank, certainly, doesn’t get what he bargained for, as instead of ultimate pleasure he tastes ultimate pain – hooks fly out and embed themselves in his skin and pull him apart.
The focus then moves on to Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson), who is busily moving into the very house that Frank lived (and ‘died’ in) with his second wife, the beautiful but coldly distant Julia (Clare Higgins). Larry has a daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Lawrence), who distrusts her stepmother, so she elects to live elsewhere. During the course of making the new house comfortable, Larry manages to cut himself badly on a nail, causing blood to drip on to the floor. This seeps into and in between the floorboards, thus precipitating the resurrection of Frank, initially as a bloody animated corpse (and here is a further indicator of the brothers’ oppositional characters – Larry detests the sight of blood). In order to fully realise his revival, Frank needs more of the red stuff.
And this is where the icy Julia steps in – after all, she did have an affair with Frank behind Larry’s unsuspecting back. Not to put too much of a spin on it, she naturally prefers Frank’s virility to her husband’s somewhat wimpish ways, and so agrees to trawl the bars and pubs for likely victims, luring them back to the house with promises of sex. However, once there, she despatches them so Frank can use their blood for nourishment. Kirsty, following her one day, sees her doing this, causing Frank to attack her. Kirsty manages to grab the puzzle box and throw it out the window, causing enough of a distraction to allow her to escape. She manages to retrieve the box once outside, but only just, as she is hospitalised with exhaustion soon afterwards.
During her stay in hospital, Kirsty solves the Lament Configuration, summoning the Cenobites to her room. She tells them that Frank has returned to the human world and Kirsty gets them to agree that, in exchange for her life, she will bring Frank to them. After returning to her father’s house, he tells her he has killed Frank, but Kirsty figures that Larry is in fact Frank, wearing his brother’s skin. An intense game of cat and mouse ensues, during which Julia is killed by Frank. He then admits to Kirsty that he killed Larry, whereupon the Cenobites return to drag him back to their realm in a welter of hooks and blood.
Who are the real monsters?
The above is a necessarily truncated and heavily summarised précis of the plot but on a purely superficial reading, it just sounds like a typical monster movie, doesn’t it? Look more closely however, and we have to ask the question; just who are the monsters here? The Cenobites, the ultimate purveyors and explorers of the boundaries of pleasure and pain through extreme sadomasochism, presented here in all their pierced and mutilated glory? Or perhaps, more alarmingly, the human characters of Frank and Julia?
Undoubtedly, for my money anyway, it has to be the latter. The Cenobites, for all their apparent monstrosity, are acting true to form and only doing what they’ve always done. In a hell dimension, such as the one they hail from, this is what they were created to do (and maybe one has to buy into the Western Abrahamic conception of Hell to understand their role in all this, perhaps?). Frank, on the other hand, has always been a hedonist and as such has been relentless in his selfish pursuit of pleasure (or at least, it’s implied) – in other words, he doesn’t really care about other people, just as long as he gets what he wants. Witness, for instance, his almost flippant, even if accidental, killing of Julia – it doesn’t matter that she’s the one responsible for his coming back, now he’s whole he no longer needs her. As for Julia, she turned her back on whatever humanity she had: she doesn’t love Larry, she never has, and she has no time for her stepdaughter, and in addition she possesses absolutely no compunction in looking for blood sacrifices for Frank.
So where does that leave the Cenobites who, by any traditional definition of the word, would normally be considered the monsters of the piece? Although their presence permeates the whole of the film, it doesn’t actually revolve around them and the Lament Configuration which summons them is only a plot device. Larry/Frank, Julia and Kirsty, and their interactions, are the fulcra of the narrative. The Cenobites are a hook on which hangs Frank’s desires and motivations, as well as Julia’s inhumanity. And, in a twisted kind of way, what beautiful monsters they are. Visually striking and in many ways precursors of the trend for body modification in the decades following the film’s release, they don’t fit into the traditional mould of the monster. Barker was, in Hellraiser, already focusing people’s attention away from our ingrained conceptions of the beastly and evil, and turning the spotlight on something far worse: ‘normal’ run-of-the-mill humans. It is often said that true evil is banal and Julia, despite being cold and distant, is banal in many respects. It’s that banality which shocks us (although, to be fair, I think that viewer reaction to Julia would anticipate her doing something vile – maybe it’s the nature of her evil and her readiness to do it which provides the shock).
And, of course, there are the references to sadomasochism which makes it explicit that this is how ultimate pain and pleasure can be attained. A more pertinent point being made here, perhaps, is that the two are, in essence, virtually indistinguishable. Add in, too, the implied connection between sex and death that pervades the realm of the Cenobites – after all, the orgasm is also known as le petit mort (the little death), and Barker has extended the metaphor into something ‘other’. Indeed, the Cenobites’ exploration of the outer limits of pleasure and pain attains something of the transcendent and numinous, a search for a state akin to a truly ‘religious’ experience. It should be noted here that many mystics, from all faiths and persuasions, undergo epiphanies that are described as ‘religious ecstasies’ – that’s no coincidence, as such states could be thought of as ‘orgasms of the soul’. It goes without saying that, just from this reading, it’s apparent that complex themes and threads are being subtly interwoven, of ideas of immanence and the divine, and of man’s eternal quest to find the right method to attain divinity. In this manner, Barker introduces an element of moral ambiguity; clearly the Cenobites are seeking the ultimate experience, ecstasies the like of which humans are incapable of experiencing in corporeal existence, which can be equated with the search for union with the divine that many in Western religious thought (as well as in Eastern spirituality, but they appear to be less interested in such things as Heaven or Hell as physical places of reward or punishment) also seek. So, although the Cenobites may appear to us in the guise of demons from a hell–dimension, from our limited perspective can we really say that they are? Or could it be that they are indeed angels, but of such a refined spirituality that we, as creatures of matter, cannot hope to reach an understanding of? This is what I think Barker is driving at here; that we filter these things through limited understanding and experience and that what one may consider to be base filth may be spiritual gold to someone else.
Furthermore, these creatures are not the run-of-the-mill kind. Both Pinhead and the Female Cenobite possess a starkly cold and abstractly ravaged beauty that immediately elevates them above any conceptions of what ‘we’ would consider to be your typical monster. They do not possess the usual horns or fangs or leathery wart-ridden skin. Yes, they are mutilated in ways that, if we saw them in real-life, would make us run away, but even so there is something vaguely appealing about their individual modifications that encapsulate them perfectly. This is not so different from those people who like to get their bodies pierced or tattooed, or those who express themselves by aligning with some subculture or other. If people are afraid of what the Cenobites represent, it’s because they’re afraid of the ‘other’ and those who are unashamedly different. Conversely, it also shows us that the ‘other’ can be beautiful too.
Above all, however, is the atmosphere, heavy, oppressive and dreadful (in every sense of the latter word). This is what was most remarkable to me – the hellish presence of the Cenobites pervaded every frame of the film, even though they don’t share much screen time until the very end. That aspect alone marks this out as a remarkable film, because while the main focus of the film is on the human characters, you’re also acutely aware that somewhere in the background lurk these otherworldly beings, watching proceedings. I get a shiver each time I watch it, knowing that this is the case.
The above is, of course, a personal interpretation. These are the reasons why this particular film struck me the first time I ever saw it, in the cinema at the age of 24 or 25. I haven’t watched it for a while (mainly because I find that I’m so busy at present that by the time I think about watching a film I’m far too tired to do so) but, because the whole aura of the film has indelibly etched itself on my mind, scenes keep flashing into my head as I write this. Just after I saw it, I became obsessed with attempting to find a way into the Special Effects industry (in fact, one of the guys I went to art college with, Chris Fitzgerald, worked for Image Animation, the house that was responsible for the effects for Hellraiser and Nightbreed. He worked on the latter and when I visited him at his home, amongst other items he showed me were the actual Pinhead prosthetics. He also owned a full-size Alien, which stood in his living room – but that’s another story). On top of that, it confirmed my opinion of Barker as being the top horror writer (and director) of his day (as if it needed further confirmation). So maybe, just maybe, I’ll dig the video out this Christmas and watch this horror masterpiece yet again.
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