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Posts Tagged ‘Hellraiser’

I’m not entirely sure of exactly when I first became aware of Clive Barker’s existence, but I’m quite certain that the first time I laid eyes on him was when he participated in a BBC documentary entitled The Studio That Dripped Blood, a tribute to Hammer Films. This was made in 1987, around the same time Barker was making Hellraiser. What has stuck in my memory were his musings on Hammer’s 70s travails and what could have mitigated them a bit – perhaps the launch of another successful series of films…?

I mention this because within a year or so of that interview, Barker was involved in his own horror franchise – well, I say ‘his own’, but part of the deal involved in getting Hellraiser made was that he sold all rights to the film and its characters: his participation in the sequels was basically as a consultant, and one gets the impression the producers of the later films gave him the minimum input necessary to ensure he was willing to have his name somewhere in the credits.

Nevertheless, is there an echo of the Hammer approach in some of the Hellraiser sequels? To their credit, Hammer tended to avoid straight retreads, looking instead to move the characters and concepts on and explore different situations. This is certainly also true of the first follow-up, Hellbound: Hellraiser II (directed by Tony Randel), released in 1988.

Central to the new story is Dr Channard (Kenneth Cranham), a brain surgeon who runs his own lunatic asylum (yes, I know, but we’ve barely touched the surface of this film). Channard is obsessed with the Cenobite-summoning puzzle boxes, one of which was crucial to the plot first time round, and so it is an astonishing coincidence that it is to his clinic that Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Lawrence) is brought following her traumatic encounter with the forces of darkness. She is in a bad state and so, it would seem, is geography itself, as her family home was in London in the first film, but is now apparently under the jurisdiction of trigger-happy NYPD cops (still only really on the surface, folks).

Channard listens to her story and persuades the cops to let him have the gory mattress on which Kirsty’s stepmother Julia (Clare Higgins, mostly) met her demise. By getting one of his patients to mutilate himself on the mattress and thus spill even more blood, he succeeds in resurrecting Julia, sans skin (it’s not Higgins under the rather-impressive flayed-alive make-up and prosthetics, but Deborah Joel). Julia and Channard strike a deal – if he will help her make herself a bit more presentable, then she will help him explore the realm within the puzzle box and introduce him to the dark power that reigns there…

Kirsty, meanwhile, has been getting nightmarish messages, apparently from her father, who is trapped in the hellish world of the box. Can she free him without falling foul of Julia and Channard? Not to mention Pinhead (Doug Bradley) and the other Cenobites, who are feeling a bit cheated after she escaped from them in the previous film. Perhaps Channard’s collection of box-related research can provide a useful clue as to the Cenobites’ origins and weaknesses…

I talk sometimes about the concept of the Good Bad Movie, by which I mean a movie with no great aspirations to be anything more than (often pulpy) entertainment, but one which is assembled with skill, imagination and energy. I’m not sure calling Hellbound a Good Bad Movie really does it justice in either respect: this is a tremendous, awful movie. The cognitive dissonance alone is almost enough to give you vertigo.

Perhaps I’m alone in this, but the Channard role is one which I can imagine Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee playing had the film been made fifteen years earlier. Kenneth Cranham is a very able actor with definite gravitas, and you can see him doing his best to try and lift the movie and give it a touch of class. The problem is that the script just doesn’t give him – or anyone else, for that matter – much to work with in terms of characterisation.

Or plot, come to that. One of the remarkable things about this film is that it is as watchable as it is, given the almost total incoherence of the story. The question of what country we’re in is of only marginal importance compared to the comprehensive lapses in logic, plotting and characterisation throughout the film. There’s no real sense of anyone having a character arc or a throughline – stuff just happens, seemingly at random. For example, Kirsty is supposedly trying to rescue her father from hell – until it turns out he’s not there (or at least, not in the one inside the box), at which point the issue of what happened to him is sort of forgotten (possibly Andrew Robinson didn’t want to come back or they didn’t want to pay his fee). Never mind fridge logic, even while you’re watching it you find yourself noting all the ways in which it simply doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

And yet in a strange way this isn’t the terminal problem it would be for a less extreme movie. Rather than a conventional narrative, the film is almost a stream-of-consciousness experience, giving something of the impression of a visceral, surreal nightmare. There is a series of events which do connect with each other, but it does seem like the visual impression left by the film was the over-riding concern. And in this they were very successful, for the relentless grotesqueness of it, and its extravagant goriness, mean this is one film which does have an impact on an aesthetic level if no other. Make no mistake: this is a grisly, graphically violent film from beginning to end, revelling in images and sequences which border on the obscene – but there is a real intentionality behind this. It’s not being done for effect – in a weird way it’s the whole point of the film. Whatever its shortcomings, it’s not lacking in vision or conviction.

Do I seem ambivalent about this film? If so, then it’s because I am. As a piece of storytelling it’s horribly dysfunctional, even moreso than the original film (which, as I’ve said, I don’t think is a particularly distinguished horror film). But it does have that extraordinary surreal ghastliness to it – the very primitiveness of much of the production actually contributes to this – which would almost inevitably be diminished in a story which made more sense. I’ve no idea if this was intentional or not, or just a piece of good fortune on the part of the production.

As I may have said before, I’m not a particular fan of the Hellraiser franchise – I don’t think any of the films are particularly good, but I can appreciate Doug Bradley’s screen presence at least. Conventional wisdom is that the first film is the best one, and by standard criteria it probably is. However, this was the one which made the strongest impression on me when I first saw it, simply because it is so strange and so extreme. I still don’t think that necessarily makes it a good film, but there is a lot about it I find commendable, even if I would struggle to actually recommend it. Few other films manage to be so successful creatively and yet at exactly the same moment really bad.

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‘I have seen the future of horror, and his name is Clive Barker,’ declared Stephen King at some point in the middle of the 1980s, and there’s probably an interesting discussion to be had over just how right or wrong he proved to be: Barker remains an author with a good degree of name recognition, but – possibly because he’s not as prolific as King, nor his work as accessible – he never quite became the inescapable multimedia presence he at one point seemed likely to become. If he was the future of the genre, then it was only for a relatively brief moment.

Perhaps a sign of this is the fact that Barker is still most closely associated with a film he wrote and directed over thirty years ago: Hellraiser, from 1987. The Hellraiser series is another one of those odd cultural artefacts which proves the indestructibility of a successful genre franchise, a bit like Friday the 13th or Halloween or (outside of the horror ghetto) Highlander – people keep on making these films and they keep scraping enough of a profit for further instalments to seem like a good bet, long after they felt at all fresh or culturally significant.

The original film isn’t quite what you’d expect if you’ve only seen some of the sequels. The central figure, in many respects, is Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman), a debauched, amoral hedonist. His pursuit of new experiences leads him to purchase an odd little puzzle box which he then takes back to his house in London. Opening the box results in what I can only describe as a summoning, and after a degree of nastiness all that is left of Frank is a stain on the attic floorboards.

Eventually ownership of the house passes to Frank’s nice brother Larry (Andrew Robinson), who is in a tepid marriage to Julia (Clare Higgins) – his teenage daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) doesn’t much get on with her stepmother, either. Moving into the house evokes memories for Julia of her adulterous liaisons with Frank – a neatly directed scene intercuts Larry humping the furniture up the stairs with Julia recalling, well, a different sort of humping. Inevitably, Larry cuts his hand in the course of his furniture-moving, and his blood dribbles onto the attic floor (for some odd reason, the attic is left to stand empty, despite the fact it appears by some distance to be the most spacious room in the house). Well, something starts to happen after Julia and Larry leave, and through the wonders of gribbly 80s special effects, Frank reconstitutes himself as a grisly, homuncular revenant.

When she learns of Frank’s big comeback, Julia is not put off by the fact he now resembles a partly-dissected corpse, especially when she learns that he can further regenerate himself, given enough fresh flesh and blood to work with. So Julia starts cruising the singles bars of London during the day, luring hapless men back to the attic and braining them with a hammer so Frank can gorge himself on their remains. Problems arise when Kirsty becomes aware of the murderous lovers’ scheme and steals the puzzle box. The forces within it will not be pleased to learn of the resurrection and could be persuaded to drag the undead Frank back where he came from – if Kirsty has the nerve to strike a deal with them…

Even people who have never seen a Hellraiser may be aware of the striking image used to promote most of these movies: the chalk-faced bald guy with the nails sticking out of his head, Pinhead (a name never used, and disliked, by Barker himself). The thing is that Pinhead (played by Doug Bradley) is a relatively minor character here, appearing well down the cast list and only billed as ‘Lead Cenobite’ (the word cenobite, should you be wondering, just means a member of a monastic community). The focus of the film is really on Frank and Julia’s murderous activities for most of its duration – although the Cenobites are the most visually striking element of it, and they do pose a much greater threat at its end.

I say ‘focus’ but one of the issues I have with Hellraiser is its lack of one – or if not focus, then certainly metaphor. You could argue there’s something quintessentially 80s about a film with a strong, ruthless woman using human flesh as a resource to achieve her own ends, but is there a more specific subtext going on here? There’s clearly something horribly dysfunctional about the Cottons from the start, but the premise of the film doesn’t clarify or develop this. And the question of whom the protagonist is is a pertinent one: it initially looks like Larry (Robinson is top-billed), who then turns out to be a cipher; then Julia becomes the focus (and Higgins gives a commanding performance); finally it is Kirsty who becomes a sort of final girl figure, in true American horror movie trope style.

It seems to me there is something very calculated about Hellraiser‘s attempts to pitch for the lucrative American market. This is technically a British film, set in London, but there are a startling number of American characters amongst both the leads and the walk-ons – only Julia is unequivocally British herself. I suppose it’s financially justified, but it does result in a film which feels like an odd combination of both British and American horror traditions – the American influence, with lashings of gory special effects and a clumping lack of subtlety, eventually proving dominant.

I’m being quite hard on Hellraiser, but it does at least have some interesting ideas of its own, both visually and in terms of its narrative: the Cenobites are a curious creation (Neil Gaiman once claimed Barker was inspired to create them after meeting Gaiman and his friends, going on to suggest that Pinhead is in fact based on horror guru Kim Newman), and there is something arresting about the notion of Kirsty invoking the abstract, cosmic evil of the Cenobites to protect her from the more visceral threat presented by Frank. The only horror novel I’ve ever written which I’m remotely satisfied with was inspired by Hellraiser (although I did mix in a dollop of Lovecraft and some folk-horror, too). So I suppose I have to concede it does have something going for it, at least. Perhaps it’s best to say that this is a film filled with interesting ideas and images, much more so than most horror movies of this period – it just never develops or assembles them into a more satisfying whole. And it has to be said that most of the sequels are much, much worse, not that this reflects especially well on the original. Nevertheless, a film can be a horror classic without being especially brilliant, and this is almost certainly the case with Hellraiser.

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