One of my interns at work asked me the other day, “You watch all of these horror movies. Don’t they scare you?” No, they really don’t. Not anymore. Some of them disturb me, like the cannibal films. But only one still kind of scares me. And that would be Hellraiser.
There was a time, before the eight sequels to the film and BDSM became well-known fodder on shows like Law and Order that Hellraiser seemed like it came from some alien land more than its true origins. The monsters of the piece, the Cenobites, looked like nothing we’d never seen before, all leather, blood and open festering wounds. The idea that sex and pain could be united wasn’t trite back in 1987, so it’s difficult to convey the power and fear this film had. It feels wrong. It feels dirty. It feels evil.
How this movie was made for $900,000 blows my mind. It looks lush and gauzy at times and at others, like when we see Frank’s heart and veins being formed, positively nightmarish. It shouldn’t be this good — it was Clive Barker’s directorial debut after seeing two of his stories, Underworld and Rawhead Rex, get made into films he didn’t agree with. What kind of deal with the devil did this guy make to turn out something so perfect on his first try?
The misconception that many people have of this film is that the Cenobites are the villains or the horrific part of the film. If we go to the poster for proof, it says “Demon to some. Angel to others.” Pinhead and his gang are there to move the story forward and certainly look frightening, but they are bound by the rules of Hell and the Lament Configuration, the puzzle box that sets the events of the film in motion. Matter of factly, these rules aren’t truly defined yet — is Pinhead a tortured soul stuck in the wheels of some hellish bureaucracy? Who created these boxes? None of this matters — “You solved the box. We came.” Yes, it can be that simple. You don’t need to know all of those answers right now. When Frank buys the box and Morocco and solves it, he gets the answer to limitless pleasure and the drug of all drugs — as Frank says, “I thought I’d gone to the limits. I hadn’t. The Cenobites gave me an experience beyond limits. Pain and pleasure, indivisible.”
That’s one of the real horrors of this film: people will do anything to chase a high. That high may be drugs. It may be pain. It may be a sexual experience that makes the mundane life you’re stuck in — like Julia, bored with a suburban life with a husband she never really wanted in the first place. The chance to be with Frank again, no matter if she has to seduce and kill for him, is everything. Notice that as he gains more muscle and skin with each drop of blood, she becomes more and more attractive, her skin gaining new color.
The main horrors of this film are family and other people. The Cotton family had issues before the Cenobites took one step out of Hell. The most horrific part of the film comes when Frank wearing Larry’s skin, stares at his niece in a moment of sexual longing and says, “Come to daddy.” Sure, there are horror film trappings, but this type of morally bankrupt behavior isn’t something confined to the cinema. So much of the betrayal and madness of Frank and Julia could happen. It happens every day.
Hellraiser exists on the border of reality. It’s fantastic, but it feels like it could happen. It’s the dangerous fiction that could overwhelm your truth if you go too far. In that it’s quite similar to Barker’s Candyman, which posits that saying the name of its titular character three times in a mirror is all it takes for him to come for you. That seems too unrealistic, but do you want to take the chance? And much like the black leather garbed creatures in this film, Candyman must adhere to a dream logic that only comes into our reality when you allow the genie from the bottle.