By the late ’80s, horror was dominated by three franchises: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Halloween. The latter two had arguably run their natural course, but they were still on course to be big players for a while yet.
Creating an iconic horror villain at this time was difficult with the monstrous stars of those franchises looming large. Freddy Kreuger was the new treat in his chatty ways and love of cruel jokes while Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers were very strong silent types. Those were the templates of the time and damn anyone who tried to offer something different.
Author Clive Barker had other ideas. He made his feature film directorial debut on this day in 1987 with an adaptation of his own novella, The Hellbound Heart, bringing us a very different kind of horror icon.
Hellraiser presented itself as a horror movie about adults for adults. Yes, it still features unpleasant death, buckets of gore, and an obsession with passions of the flesh, but despite its surface-level similarities, this was no slasher.
The story of Hellraiser sees a couple move into the husband’s (Larry) childhood home. He’s joined by his second wife, Julia. Meanwhile, Larry’s daughter Kirsty refuses to live with Julia (her stepmother). Things aren’t especially great between them, but the house holds another secret that will spell bloody disaster for them.
Larry’s brother Frank had recently been in the house, and the family’s black sheep had been playing with a bizarre puzzle box and dabbled with the darkest of arts. This summoned a group of sadistic demons from another dimension who took him to what amounts to hell. Frank escapes their clutches, albeit not in the same state he once was, and can only make himself whole with good old-fashioned blood sacrifices. Oh, and he was having an affair with his brother’s wife before his gory makeover. So now the illicit pair are in cahoots to make Frank live again.
Sex and Death
Julia does this by seducing men, bringing them back while Larry is out, and killing them in the attic room to help regenerate Frank. Kirsty, already suspicious of her stepmother, spies one of these clandestine meetings and ends up embroiled in Frank and Julia’s nightmare scenario.
Frank is desperate to resurrect himself to escape his tormentors, and from the opening we see exactly why. The Cenobites are some brutally sadistic beings.
There’s several of the Cenobites, all clad in leather and resplendent in their messed-up facades of pained flesh. Barker took inspiration from three kinds of ”fashion” in the form of punk, S&M, and Catholicism for the Cenobites. But the one that understandably stood out and became an icon was Pinhead, played by Doug Bradley. Pinhead is articulate, intelligent, and menacing. Dry and matter of fact in speech. A damned priest in aesthetics. In the opening, after chains rip apart Frank, Pinhead calmly and cooly sifts through the fleshy wreckage to assemble Frank’s face like he was casually putting together a jigsaw. Ultimately, he coldly watches on as Frank is torn a few new ones.
Pinhead’s origin is given some mystery, and it is hinted that he was once human. The nature of the Cenobites may appear demonic, but there’s an insistence they’re something in between.
Despite protests from studio heads to make Pinhead more like his contemporaries, Barker was insistent Pinhead remained as he was. Barker cited Christopher Lee’s portrayal of Dracula as a major influence. When asked about the connection, Bradley said: ”Part of the chill of Dracula surely lies in the fact that he is very clearly and articulately aware of what he is doing you feel that this is a penetrating intelligence, and I don’t find dumb things terribly scary. I find intelligence scary, particularly twisted intelligence; it’s one of the reasons why Hannibal Lecter is scary, isn’t it? It’s because you always feel that he’s going to be three jumps ahead of you.”
That was something arguably missing from mainstream horror at the time. Barker and Bradley provided it.
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