In 1986, a novella called The Hellbound Heart was published. It was published by a company called Dark Harvest in an anthology series called Night Visions. It pretty much would have came and went all by itself under these circumstances, but its author, Clive Barker, somehow managed to put together enough financing to shoot a film adaptation that was released the following year.
The film, released under the title Hellraiser, was a fairly faithful adaptation that was made on a very tight budget. Considering that it was made in the United Kingdom, and with actors and crew that appear to have never worked on a film before (or in some cases, since), it is amazing that the film looks as good as it does. Given the look of the film, if its production budget was more than twenty percent of its 14.5 million US dollar gross, colour me surprised.
But whereas the sequels, at least up to a point, continued to invest ever-increasing sums of money for ever-diminishing returns, Hellraiser makes use of its budget very well. The admitted or claimed budget is three million US dollars, which probably mostly went on things other than the actors’ salaries. In fact, anyone familiar with special and makeup effects probably already knows where the budget went.
Like The Hellbound Heart, Hellraiser‘s plot is deceptively simple. A man named Frank Cotton has grown bored with the simple, hedonistic pleasures he avails himself to. So he goes to what looks like a market in South-East Asia and buys what looks like a fairly ornate but otherwise unremarkable box. Seated in a room that looks big enough to be an apartment in some parts of 1986 England, Frank sits and manipulates the box in a manner almost like a religious ritual. Painstakingly, Frank moves his hands about against the box’s surfaces, watching as segments move about against each other, in response to his touch.
Now, it probably comes as a surprise to some, but even novellas like The Hellbound Heart often contain too much to fit into a singular film. Such is especially the case when the film is only about ninety minutes long and has a budget of three million. So rather than the elaborate scene in which Frank enters another world full of revolting sights that tip readers off to the fact that his definition of pleasure is different to that world’s inhabitants, we simply see chains that end in hooks spring out of the box and grapple Frank’s flesh. This sequence is quickly followed by another in which a redressing of the set into “hell” is filled with several weird-looking figures in black outfits. One of these, a tall, slender man with what appears to be nails in his head at first glance, picks up shattered pieces of Frank’s face before picking up the puzzle box. Manipulating the box in a manner akin to a “reset” switch, this character strokes his finger around a circle in one segment of the box as it rejoins another. Little scratched-in, almost sperm-like bits of light go into the box as it returns to its original shape, a brief flash of light is seen in the box, and a rumble-like sound is heard.
Now, if you have read enough of my writing, you will know that I have one rule regarding introduction of characters or starting a piece of music. Give the audience a strong introduction, but do not blow all of your reserves on said introduction. In fact, that is probably my favourite rule. But the point here is that in Hellraiser, Clive Barker and his team follow it to the letter. But I am getting ahead of myself here.
After this shot of the Cenobites picking up the pieces of their latest victim and reassembling the puzzle box, we get into the meat of the rest of the story. You see, Frank had a brother by the name of Larry. Larry is everything Frank is not. Respectable, conservative, prim, proper, basically, he is what author Clive Barker was trying to tell the audience he is not in The Hellbound Heart. Larry has a wife by the name of Julia. Claire Higgins, in the role of Julia, spends much of her introduction and subsequent first-act scenes coming across like something slightly above Stephen Lack in Scanners. She is acting, but only in the bare minimum amount necessary to not embarrass herself. The first scene showing Larry and Julia in the house is before they move in. The second involves the aggravating process of moving the furniture into the house. As Larry and Julia are moving things in, however, Larry manages to open up his hand on a loose nail. In a state of some confusion and shock, he makes his way up into what keeps getting referred to as the cellar. Julia, upon seeing the injury (which is dripping blood at a rate definitely worthy of an emergency room visit), rushes Larry out to the car and drives him to the hospital.
Now, important to the plot is that Larry’s marriage to Julia is not his first. From his prior marriage, he has a daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), who is in her late teens as of Hellraiser‘s timeline. This is a significant difference in one sense from The Hellbound Heart, where Kirsty is simply a friend of Larry’s. Myself, I think the story is somewhat better for it because it gives Kirsty credible motives to be hanging around the place. Yes, the Kirsty in the novella does have reasons to be doing what she does (unrequited and unacknowledged love towards Larry), but the stronger relationship in the film cements this.
Kirsty does not have the most friendly relationship with Julia. Although they try to get along for Larry’s benefit, something happens in this house as a result of Larry bleeding all over one floor. This floor, as it happens, is in the same part of the house we saw earlier when Frank opened the box. So, after Julia leads Larry out and takes him to the car, the blood gets sucked into the floor, and a marvel of low-budget puppeteering emerges from it. Julia, hearing strange sounds from this cellar, makes her way in and finds the vaguely-Human husk of Frank. Frank proclaims that he needs blood in order to regain the bits that make him identifiable. This brings about two key elements.
The first is Frank’s explanation of how he came to be in the state he is in. Holding up what has gone by a number of different names now in writings about the films, he tells Julia a bit of a story that could only occur in a Clive Barker novel (or film). You see, in spite of all the drugs, sex, and whatever else Frank has been into prior to his escape that began the film, he was bored. Not just bored in the sense that you or I mean, but bored as in snorting all of the cocaine and having bum sex with all of the women he could solicit was not enough to keep him interested. So when he heard of what was called the Lament Configuration Box for a while, he decided that he had to give it a try. And this is what led to the scene that pretty much opened the film.
Now, what happened when Frank opened the box is where the film diverges from the novel quite noticeably. The novella’s version is, shall we say, quite a bit more disturbing. In the novella, the box does not merely shoot chains with hooks into Frank’s skin. It opens a schism, a doorway into another world. And what Frank finds in there is horrifying beyond anything that a film could have realised on a budget of three million dollars. Sitting on a throne atop a pile of severed tongues, Frank finds a surgically-mutilated vaguely woman-like thing that, to quote the story text, makes him realise he may have made a very, very big mistake.
The film simply states that Frank thought he had gone to the absolute limits of pleasure and/or pain, and that the Cenobites, as they have come to be known, taught him otherwise the hard way. Obviously, having little in the way of skin, Frank feels an urgent need to correct this in order to get as far away from where he believes the Cenobites can find him as is possible. This prompts a number of scenes in which Julia goes to bars, picks up men, brings them back to the house, and kills them so that Frank can consume them in such a way as to rebuild his physical self. As they are about to perform this act with one hapless victim, however, they are walked in on by Kirsty, who, when realising who the man with no visible outer epidermis is, and that he desperately wants the puzzle box for reasons she cannot quite comprehend, throws it out of a nearby window, runs out of the house, picking it up along the way, and faints on the side of a street some distance away.
As Julia and Frank debate what to do from that point, Kirsty is greeted in the hospital by a doctor whose bedside manner can at best be described as snippy. He leaves her alone in the room for a while with the box, which Kirsty begins to investigate curiously. When she succeeds in opening it, at first she finds herself wandering through a hitherto nonexistent passageway out of the room, which is blocked by one of the silliest-looking film monsters of the 1980s. And that is saying a lot.
What happens when she returns to the room, only to find the walls changing and some of the furniture acting up, pretty much makes the film. At first, just one Cenobite appears, a man whose face has been severely mutilated to the point where he has no discernible eyes (or sockets) or nose. Grabbing hold of Kirsty and putting his fingers in her mouth, he moves her to the middle of one side of the room as the rest of the Cenobites appear.
Dear Odin, this was a moment. The slovenly fat one never speaks, but the two that do speak… oh dear. The lesser player in the dialogue of this scene is a woman with a shaved head, wires sticking out of her face, and a gaping opening in her throat that appears to have been the site of an impromptu tracheotomy. Hence, she speaks in a voice that is barely a whisper, but supplements the main speaker beautifully. This woman, played by Grace Kirby, tries to present a gentle, reasoned manner, and thus frightens a great deal. And the main speaker, a tall man with pins stuck in a specific pattern into his head, played by Doug Bradley, speaks beautifully. Forcefully, threateningly, inarguably, all without raising his voice once. “The box,” he says to begin with. “You opened it, we came.” You see, the basic rules, as he explains, is that Kirsty has opened the box, so now she has to go with the Cenobites and experience all manner of Cenobite-y pleasures. Things like having your skin ripped off all at once whilst being submerged in a pool of salt, or playing The Game Of Life™ with the rules set to Working Class Of The 1980s style. But after much back and forth, Kirsty comes up with a counter-proposal.
Although Grace Kirby does interject with “perhaps we would prefer you”, Kirsty confirms with Doug Bradley that they know a man named Frank Cotton. Frank, she tells them, has escaped them. Her proposal is that she lead them to him, and they take him back in her place.
So Kirsty winds up back at her father’s home, with the means by which she left the hospital undisclosed. Upon arrival, she finds that not all is well in the house. Her father is acting weirdly, proclaiming that her uncle is dead, that he put the man out of his misery, and so forth. Finding a pile of mangled remains on the floor in the cellar, Kirsty is greeted by the cenobites once again. Doug Bradley proclaims that they want the man who did this. Protesting that said man is her father, and they cannot have him, she runs out of the room, only to discover through some cleverly-timed dialogue that the man who appears to her as Larry is actually Frank, who has killed Larry and is now wearing his skin. Attempts by Frank and Julia to kill Kirsty finally end with Frank and Julia alone in the cellar, where Frank verbiates that he did, in fact, kill Larry, but Larry was already dead as far as he was concerned.
Of course, as promised, the Cenobites come out and reclaim Frank in his Larry skin. But after they get done with the whole torturing Frank thing in mere seconds, they decide they want Kirsty, too. So as she flees in random directions around the house, Kirsty dispatches the Cenobites by re-folding the puzzle box in such a way as to close it. Each cenobite disappears in a mess of film-scratch effects that Clive Barker explains was the result of he and one of his crew or friends going into the studio and playing with the negatives whilst getting drunker and drunker. Given that the money had run out by this time, and the whole inebriation, I suppose it is a miracle that these effects work as well as they do.
Now, having explained the ending of the film’s main conflict, I will just leave it there because I believe that the film’s few remaining surprises should remain surprises. Richard Harrington writes in his review of the film that the film’s visuals complement Barker‘s writing, but seldom achieve the same impact. That is a pretty fair assessment. He also states that Hellraiser was Barker‘s first film as a director, and it accomplished a lot more than Stephen King‘s debut as a director. At some point in the near future, I will speak about that debut so we can assess together how right Harrington is.
He is right that Barker is a man of verbal images, and that his blend of sex and horror is more effective in written form. But unfortunately, even in the 1980s, writing alone did not come close to paying bills.
So far, there have been eight sequels to Hellraiser. Their quality ranges from above average (Hellbound: Hellraiser II) to utterly shithouse (Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth, Hellraiser IV: Bloodline). In the former case, a certain sense of invention occurred, with the results of one attempt to force a disabled woman to open the box prompting a nice bit of character development (“it is not hands that call us, it is desire”). Hellraiser IV: Bloodline was so bad that its original director, Kevin Yagher, disowned the theatrical version. Hellraiser: Revelations was made in a matter of weeks for the sole purpose of fulfilling Dimension Films’ obligation to release another Hellraiser film or risk losing the rights to the franchise. Whilst neither Doug Bradley nor Clive Barker have many any direct comment on the film itself, the Wikipedia article says that Bradley had this to say about ad copy claiming the film comes from his mind:
I want to put on record that the flic [sic] out there using the word Hellraiser IS NO FUCKIN’ CHILD OF MINE! I have NOTHING to do with the fuckin’ thing. If they claim its from the mind of Clive Barker, it’s a lie. It’s not even from my butt-hole.
The one Hellraiser sequel that is in the same ballpark as the original is Hellraiser: Hellseeker. It has a similarly amateurish, low-budget look in spite of much more money likely having been spent making the film.
In Hellseeker, Dean Winters plays a man named Trevor. Trevor, we learn, was married to Kirsty, whom we are told at the beginning has died in a car wreck. The car went off a bridge and into the water below, but although Trevor apparently escapes with his life, and both of the car’s doors are open, Kirsty is nowhere to be found.
Trevor goes through a series of scenes in which police detectives question him with varying levels of hostility. One seems fairly sympathetic, another is flat-out convinced that he killed his wife. And all the while, he seems to have no clear memories of what happened. This is not uncommon after high-impact car wrecks, especially in people who have hit their head in the process, but making matters worse is that Trevor is also having some very funky hallucinations at seemingly random intervals. Including one where a Cenobite puts a needle through his throat during an acupuncture session.
Some of the hallucinations involve women being murdered by cling-wrapping and the like, seen on Trevor’s home video camera. But to cut a long and sometimes wandering story short, during one visit to the police precinct, the more sympathetic detective leads Trevor on a trip to the basement floor, where he is led to a corpse on a table.
Basically, we learn as Trevor learns that although post-accident he wanted to think he was a good guy in a difficult situation, the reality is the exact opposite. He bought the Lament Configuration Box from a shady dealer (also played by Doug Bradley, but under the pseudonym Charles Stead). Then he took it to Kirsty and tried to cajole her into opening it. Kirsty does open the box, but under her own initiative, and once again she makes a deal with what is now referred to as Pinhead. If he lets her go again, she will bring him five souls. Although Pinhead seems somewhat fixated on Kirsty’s soul, he apparently decided to indulge her because her offer intrigues him, and he is not merely a serial killer choosing victims at random. People who go to “hell” with him have to be genuinely deserving of it, which although Kirsty is a grown woman and probably with some misdeeds to her credit, she is not.
So as we learn, Kirsty has killed three of the many women that Trevor cheated on her with. Fair enough, but it goes beyond mere jealousy. In fact, in a secret deleted scene, Pinhead even tells Trevor something like “you are married to a woman who looks like that and you cheated on her? you belong in hell, son…”. You see, the whole stunt with the Lament Configuration Box was not Trevor’s first attempt to do away with her. The fourth victim is one of Trevor’s workmates, with whom he was making plans to kill Kirsty, split the insurance, and ride off into the sunset. So then we learn what really happened in the car. Trevor was driving and all, but Kirsty was in the car with him, and they were arguing about his unfaithfulness. Well, sort of. Trevor was listening to her angry tirades about it whilst expressing anger about how the stunt with the Lament Configuration Box did not have the results that he was expecting. And then she announces that she made “him” (Pinhead) a better offer, before shooting Trevor in the head and making the risky move of letting the car crash.
As she survives, and is allowed to leave the scene (having successfully made it appear that her husband killed the other four people), she is handed the Lament Configuration Box by one of the detectives. Simply taking it with her, she walks away into the sunset, and the film ends.
Two real sequels followed after Hellseeker, neither of which I have seen as yet. One of the real problems of at least two of the post-Bloodline sequels is that often, the films seem to be stories written for another idea or franchise, then retooled to fit the Cenobites in. The last real sequel to Hellraiser, Hellworld, features a character portrayed by Lance Henriksen, but the seeming inaccessibility of films in the latter half of the franchise beside Hellseeker make it very hard to really make up my own mind concerning their quality. Consensus has it that they are generally shit, and that the Weinstein Company’s constant dead-horse flogging of the franchise should just stop so that Clive Barker can have the rights back and do something decent with it.
So in summary, if you can find Hellraiser, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, and Hellraiser: Hellseeker on Blu-ray Disc, my advice is to dive right in and take a peek. The others that I have seen, Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth and Hellraiser IV: Bloodline, I can only say are interesting for use in examples of when horror filmmaking is not done well. In fact, the latter of those can be credited with confining the franchise to the direct to video dustbin that it has been in for the last five episodes. “I believe in the light, demon,” has got to be one of the most lame-arse catchphrases for a “heroic” character I have ever heard. And yes, I thought that a long time before his oh-so-wonderful light took a big chunk out of my face.
So I hope that this little write-up of the Hellraiser films that are worth a piece of poo flung at a wall has helped you avoid watching a shitty Hellraiser-wannabe film. If not, go to hell.