We Have Such Sights to Show You - HELLRAISER Revisited

PrintE-mail Written by Dominic Cuthbert

STARBURST celebrates the iconic film series from the twisted mind of author CLIVE BARKER. Unlock the Lemarchand’s Box and enter the world of HELLRAISER…

Few icons have sent such a collective shiver through the annals of horror. Although Pinhead rubs shoulders with Freddie, Jason, Michael Myers and more, he was an altogether different beast. A cosmic surgeon from the furthest reaches of experience. An angel to some, a demon to others. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before.

Before Clive Barker turned his hand to directing, he explored the darkest imaginings of his innermost recesses. A talented writer and performer, Barker formed his own theatre company at college – The Dog Company. It was here that Barker met many of the key players who would help bring the Cenobites to the silver screen, including Doug Bradley himself. And it was working with George Pavlou in the early eighties on shockers inspired by his Books of Blood tales, where Barker was first exposed to the alchemic process of filmmaking. Haunted by the memory of a man falling to his death at an air show, and nurtured on Edgar Allan Poe, Barker was steeped in darkness from an early age. The idea for Hellraiser was a demented afterbirth of these experiences.

The principal ideas for Hellraiser were first explored in Barker’s 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart. Written with a dreamy and evocative style, the text was deliberately cryptic about the Cenobites themselves; the character that would go on to become Pinhead was dubbed ‘the engineer’. It made good on his reputation and mission statement as outlined in his popular Books of Blood, and represented a further foray into the viscerally unknown. The story goes that Frank, a self-centred, devil-may-care bloke, stumbles through life in a search for new hedonistic heights. His travels have granted him myriad sexual experiences and forbidden practices, the likes of which only lead to nihilism. After catching wind of an object known as the Lament Configuration, Frank tracks down the owner. Upon opening the box, surrounded by sacrificial and tokenistic offerings, he meets the Cenobites; a group whose fixation on sadomasochism has led to a plateau where there is no difference between pain and pleasure. There is just experience and sensation. The subsequent film followed the text fairly faithfully, which is fundamentally a play on the classic haunted house formula. But there was one major detour, which has caused upset with some readers. Kirsty, the heroine of the piece (and Ashley Laurence’s début role), is a friend of Frank’s estranged brother Rory, and nursing a secret love for him. In the film, however, she’s his daughter, which creates a kind of Freudian dissonance between the two texts. 

1987’s Hellraiser saw Barker sitting solo in the director’s chair for the first time. After his previous outings failed to garner much attention, it was an intrepid move. If fate has any bearing on existence, Hellraiser might be living proof. The stars seemed in alignment, with what seemed like incidental choices or changes at the time of production having a profound effect on the genre. Doug Bradley was always the original choice to take on the mantle of the lead Cenobite, but he was offered another part in the form of one of the mattress movers seen at the beginning of the film. As a plucky young actor, Bradley thought it was important that punters be able to see his face so early on in his career. Despite almost turning the role of Pinhead down, he came to his senses. Though Barker was never happy with the moniker Pinhead, preferring instead Priest – or Hell Priest as revealed in The Scarlet Gospels – the nickname stuck and was made canonical for later entries in the series.

The hands-on approach to filming forced the players to reconsider traditional techniques. By shooting on location in a real house, Barker was required to come at cinematography from a completely different angle. This notion was also carried across into the icky effects. Yes, that really is a sandwich bag being used as a beating heart. With the jerky weirdness of the stop motion scenes and the KY Jelly glisten of Frank’s ephemeral skinlessness, it is still a slick yet sordid affair. But its major flaw is the dubbing. It was shot in London, but studio New World, with dollar signs in their eyes, claimed the film would be that much more marketable if the location was jerry-rigged to the US. Ipso facto, American actors were called in to dub over the Brits. You can’t help but wince at the finished effect. But nonetheless, the film made on a $1 million budget has since become one of the single most important horror movies of all time.

The second in the series, Hellbound, was a direct continuation of the first, as if the original material had been cut in two. Suffering from second movie syndrome, the film forever lives in the lengthening shadow of its predecessor. This time around, Barker stepped back into a producer role, with Tony Randel filling in as director. Although it represented the breakthrough moment for Randel’s career, it was something of a death knell for the franchise. Still, it gave fans an opportunity to bear witness to the origins of the puzzle box, to visit the labyrinth of hell, and, most excitingly, find out just who the fuck Pinhead was. Elliot Spencer was a British Army Captain in WWI, who somehow happened across the puzzle box. His subsequent sensory exploitation, and implementation of hooks, chains and slicers, gave rise to Pinhead. Ever the champion of monsters, Barker gave the Cenobites a fine send off by reverting them back to their human states in death. But Pinhead was already a cultural phenomenon and refused to stay deceased.

As the franchise waned, Pinhead increasingly became a two-bit Freddy Krueger, cracking wise and spinning puns. This was evident even from the third entry, which saw the two fundamental parts of Pinhead split into two distinct entities: the human and the other. This was at a time when even Freddie’s jibes were wearing thin, and what had made Pinhead an icon had all but fled. Bradley’s charisma and booming voice were enough to keep the franchise ticking over, but in its death throes, even he was a relic of the past.

Hell on Earth was very much a product of its time. Released in 1992 and directed by B-movie merchant Anthony Hickox, it charted too-cool-for-school rich kid J. P. Monroe looking for more morbid knick-knacks for his nightclub. With his flair for Gothic chic, he can’t help but pick up the Pillar of Souls. Inside is contained the monstrous essence of Pinhead, and he’s searching for a way out. But for all its gore and effects, it was a very ordinary affair. 

As the inaugural film had been such a stark departure from horror, it only really had one place to go to save it from stagnation; space. Yes, the obligatory sci-fi entry. So much for the final frontier. For purists, Bloodline is the last in the series, and it’s hard to argue with their reasoning. It was the last entry to enjoy a theatrical release, and, more crucially, the last to have any major involvement with Clive Barker.

The following four films were a further decline into mediocrity. As Barker hadn’t an inkling of the film’s potential for success, he signed away the story and character rights before Hellraiser was even released. The beast was cut loose of its creator. Although reduced to a footnote after the second film, Ashley Laurence returned for the 2002 outing, Hellseeker. Director Rick Bota would also hold the reigns for the next two additions, being Deader and Hellworld in 2005. And then in 2011, Revelations happened. For the first time in the series’ history, Doug Bradley did not undergo the tiring make-up process to become Pinhead. Instead, the mantle was taken up by Stephan Smith Collins, and voiced by prolific voice actor Fred Tatasciore. The series had well and truly had it.

Bloated franchise syndrome may have quelled Hellraiser’s reputation, and market saturation has all but diluted Pinhead’s greatness, but for our money, the first film is British horror’s finest hour. The long gestating remake, which Barker himself has claimed he will write and direct, even boasts a homecoming for Doug Bradley. It’s all quiet on the Cenobite front, with details dubiously thin on the ground, but we hope it’ll be a return to form, because jump scares just aren’t doing it.

The original trilogy are unleashed on Blu-ray in the UK for the first time in HELLRAISER: THE SCARLET BOX from Arrow Video - available now

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