Looking Back At HELLRAISER

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Tony will tear your soul apart.


Clive Barker was famously described as ‘the future of horror,’ by perennial scarebringer Stephen King. His ‘Books of Blood’ brought brand new ideas to a genre that was awash with slasher movies and serial killers, and overdosing on ‘implausibly giant killer creatures.’

Barker brought an element of fairy tale back to the horror genre – his stories were inventive, but always with a hint of something grand yet subtle, something with a thoroughly woven backstory, a mystery at its core but also something that spoke to the very human emotional questions of the day.

Perhaps today, though he’s still actively creative, the thing he’s best known for is his novella The Hellbound Heart, and the movies that sprang from it - the Hellraiser movies.

Barker both wrote and directed the first Hellraiser, and there are hints of eighties creative pretension scattered throughout its length, including a very dodgy demon-dragon, and a mid-point thematic blooming flower that screams ‘student film.’ The point is, you don’t remember those bits. Nobody does, because Barker combines three very good ideas into one movie, and with the help of some high quality performances and some top-notch disturbing-as-hell make-up work, he delivers all of them in a way that is philosophically scary.

Let’s deal with the really good ideas.


That puzzle box.

Man, that puzzle box. Known as Lemarchand’s box or more precisely as the Lament Configuration Box, it is the MacGuffin of a dark fairy tale, elegant, beautiful, and a simple idea encased in complexities – the key to a doorway to another dimension, in this case to a dimension of ‘Hellish’ pleasure and pain. If you want to elevate the horror genre beyond ‘X kills Y,’ this is the way to do it: combine human mechanical skill with mystical forces of darkness, and connect the two through a single, beautiful focal point. That’s Clive Barker’s gift: finding the way to raise the game of his genre, and applying it with a skill the Brothers Grimm would envy.

The Lament Configuration Box also speaks to something fundamental in human nature – curiosity. It’s a puzzle box – that implies it exists to be solved, and that there will be a reward for the person who solves it. But the Lament Configuration Box comes into the movie with a backstory of reputation behind it. It’s the puzzle you solve if all else in the world is wearisome, if nothing can satisfy you within the bounds of the ‘ordinary.’ It’s both a reward and a trap for those whose minds are greedy for a particular kind of what the buttoned-up world would call deviancy (or at least it would have in the eighties when Hellraiser splashed across screens). The rewards of the Lament Configuration Box are given to those who actively seek them out.


Then there are the Cenobites.

It’s perhaps odd that the thing everyone takes away from Hellraiser is the Cenobites – they have only five or six scenes in the movie, and most of them are short. But damn, they make an impact. If the Lament Configuration Box is the MacGuffin through which the dark magic of Barker’s story unfolds, the Cenobites are the fairy godmothers of sadomasochistic deviancy – they come when summoned, and they give gifts, albeit their gifts are violent. Again, those who open the box usually know what they want their reward to be, and the Cenobites are there expressly to fulfil those desires. In one of Doug Bradley’s few speeches as Pinhead in the original Hellraiser, he eloquently expresses the idea that their role is ambiguous – they are ‘Demons to some. Angels to others.’

Angels to those who go looking for this box, who strive to open it as a relief from the banality of the world, as a way of feeling something bigger, sharper, beyond the norm of society’s permission. Demons really only to anyone who opens the box without understanding what it is and what it does, like Kirsty, Larry’s daughter and the ‘innocent party’ in the drama, who gains the power to both summon the Cenobites and, crucially, to close the box and send them back where they belong. Again, Hellraiser is far more a dark fairy tale of a power that gets out of control than it is a straightforward horror story, and the Cenobites are its fairies, the guardians and avatars of the change that the magic can bring to your life.


The resurrection story of Frank as he manages, through what is initially an accidental blood sacrifice, to escape the Cenobites and find his way back to the world of the living doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but what it does is show the nature of the man – indomitable, however appalling, and determined to survive, to learn the lessons of his time with the Cenobites and find his way back to the pleasures of flesh and free will. But what no-one ever talks about when they talk about Hellraiser is its social commentary on the eighties (and arguably even more on our times), or the fact that Julia’s story is essentially Lady Chatterley’s Lover…but with murders. Julia marries Larry, though one area that’s never explored in the movie is exactly why she’d do such a thing, as they’re clearly unsuited, but while Julia gives off the impression of being relatively prim and proper, she’s actually a wild force of submissive sexuality, just waiting – like a human puzzle box – to be unlocked by the right person. Larry can never be that person, he’s too conventional, too boring, too needy ever to speak to Julia’s heart. Brother Frank though, from the first moment they meet, is a kindred spirit, someone who wants to go further, someone wild and untamed who can bring that side of her to life. Take the drama back a century and you have Connie Chatterley, withering on the vine of respectability as her crippled husband no longer touches her, responding to the wildness in Mellors, the man who can bring her to blazing sexual life, but almost more importantly, to fertility, to motherhood. By the 1980s, the physical ailment of Clifford Chatterley is replaced by Larry’s stifling politeness, his conventionality, his constant need for permission.

Frank represents a dominating force to Julia, one to whom she can entirely submit, one for whom she’ll do anything, because only he sets her on fire. The original sex scenes in Hellraiser included a more explicit delivery of that idea – there was spanking and buggery before Frank declares ‘It’s never enough!’ and draws the desperate whisper from Julia that she’ll do ‘anything.’

It’s a promise on which Frank collects from beyond the grave, making Julia his hands to commit murders and regenerate his body. Claire Higgins gives a superb performance under Barker’s direction, making the journey from terrified ingenue killer to complacent murderess, through to pangs of guilt when it’s Larry’s turn to be sacrificed, meaning Larry’s is the only killing in the movie that Frank performs unaided.


If Hellraiser is a dark fairy tale, Frank and Julia enjoy their single ‘Cinderella’ moment, the Prince and Princess of darkness uniting in celebration before Kirsty invades their privacy and brings the Cenobites with her. But Hellraiser is also a statement on the shackles of civility and convention, and those that go beyond them. Andrew Robinson’s Larry is entirely unable to reach his wife, to excite her, to bring her alive to him, because he’s essentially too ‘ordinary,’ and even too ‘nice’ to understand that her needs go beyond the conventionalities of romance. In their adulterous – and then their murderous – adventure together, Frank and Julia are two people with a single, corresponding need to go beyond the socially conventional, and while during their lifetime that expresses itself in only a sexual way (shutting Julia’s sex drive for conventional men down in the process), when Frank comes back from the Cenobites’ lair, the same impulse turns Julia into a murderer because the need to do as Frank tells her is impossible to deny.

The original Hellraiser, despite its flaws of storytelling pretension and an occasional weirdness too far, like the scuttling, wall-crawling chaser-demon, stands pinhead and shoulders above much that cluttered up the horror genre in the eighties. It brings that fairy tale dimension of horrors coming from somewhere to vivid, fantastical life, through great ideas like the Lament Configuration Box and the Cenobites, and to real emotional life through the co-dependency of Frank and Julia, and through the brilliant portrayal of a couple stifled by awkwardness and starved of intimate understanding (Andrew Robinson and Clare Higgins). It’s a fairy tale of desire, of passion, and of what people will do to pursue it in their lives. The Cenobites stand as one of modern horror’s landmark creations, waiting just behind the gateway of the Lament Configuration Box, always ready to grant the wishes of those who dare to find them.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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