A friend of mine recently rekindled my love of Hellraiser, Clive Barker’s most well known creation. We’re still three years shy of the thirtieth anniversary, and there’s a remake in the works that Barker himself is involved in, but I just wanted to mention my absolute love for this film and its sequel, Hellraiser II, and explain what it is that makes me love this.
To be clear, I’m going to really only be talking about the original Hellraiser movie, not the sequels and not The Hellbound Heart, which was the inspiration for the movie.
Hellraiser is, in many ways, the perfect 80s horror movie. It has sex, monsters with personality, a young girl as the hero, and plenty of disturbing imagery. The 80s were, as I’ve mentioned before, a great era for horror films. There were so many new and original story ideas, and the Cenobites of Hellraiser were among the most original. They are neither evil nor good, but are “Explorers… in the further regions of experience. Demons to some, angels to others.” It’s no mistake that their outfits are clearly inspired by BDSM fetishwear. There is a completely sexual tone to their torments, the idea that when you go far enough, pain and pleasure are the same thing. And that is the best part of the Cenobites – they get into your head and mess with all the little gears and levers you’d rather no one knew about.
However, while I could probably write a book on how awesome the Cenobites are (and Pinhead in particular, or “Lead Cenobite” as he’s known in the movie’s credits), I want to talk instead about the real villain of the movie, Uncle Frank. Frank Cotton is literally the definition of a slimeball. Brother to Larry, he seduced and had sex with Larry’s fiance, Julia, the night before her wedding on top of her wedding dress! Now I’m not excusing Julia here, she is clearly also evil, but it’s at least implied that Frank came on very strongly and was at least a little bit threatening to her, going so far as to cut her chamois with his switchblade. Frank is, in fact, an incredibly selfish hedonist. He sought out the puzzle box because he had reached the limits of experience of earthly pleasures. Think about that for a second, and all the nasty, disgusting things Frank must have done before finally reaching the box.
Frank’s resurrection, facilitated by the blood of his brother, is one of the most disturbing movie scenes ever shot. Frank is left as monstrous on the outside as on the inside. There’s really no boundaries to his evil – he gets Julia to kill men for him, he even gets her to help kill Larry so he can have Larry’s skin, and he even tries to sexually assault Kirsty, his own niece (while pretending to be her dad!). He doesn’t even really care when he kills Julia, but then he never saw her as much more than a useful tool anyway.
Meanwhile, the average moviegoer is hiding their eyes when the Cenobites show up. While I can’t quite classify them as the heroes here – they do after all try to take Kirsty back to hell with them even after she made good on her part of the deal to get Frank back for them – they are still definitely not the villains. That’s Frank and Julia. That’s what I love about this film, the supposed bad guys, the scary folks in black leather with chains and blades, and the ones who ultimately save Kirsty from Frank and Julia. It’s an interesting look at how what you consider to be evil may not be, and it may not be anything you even understand at all.
It’s that Lovecraftian twist of the Cenobites, the way they simply can’t be comprehended by those who are not like them, and their desire to make more people like them, that appeals to me. There seems to be more to them, a layer under the surface, as if there are many dark secrets hidden within them that the movie only brushes against. What else does Pinhead know? What has he seen? What can he really do? These are left unanswered, even in the second film, and it’s my opinion they went too far in explaining Pinhead and the Cenobites in the horrible sequels that followed. Not knowing who they are, what they are about…that’s what makes the Cenobites so effective.They are a secret, a riddle, a…puzzle…
And we all know what happens when you go solving puzzles…