Hellraiser – Clive Barker’s visceral masterpiece of horror and crimson eroticism – celebrates thirty years of terror today. After three decades of raising the damned, it’s time we look back at this grotesque work of art and give our thanks. I’m Manic Exorcism and it’s time I take you all back to Hell!
In ancient lore there has always been the spectral fear of the Hell-mouth (aka: gates of Hell), that foreboding subterranean threshold ghastly bridging the inescapable span between two milestone timelines – the ending of mortal life and the awakening of eternity. Plumes of acrid smoke billowing upwards to darken the cracked heights of the underworld. Screams of the damned deafening out all sound save the cackling banter of fallen angels. And misery – oh such misery yet to be explored – running over like foams of blood brimming the Devil’s festive cup, a devil who sups on the anguish of lost souls. These were the visions of Hell as we once knew them.
Medieval sermons were ripe with graphic warnings of the Underworld prepared for the Devil and his accursed own. Dante and John Milton both – through the eloquence of their artful words – painted a haunting visual of what the lost soul could expect at the final gasp of a wasted life. Pits. Flames. A multi-leveled extravaganza of constant suffering without end or relief.
Even Jesus of Nazareth gave His audience a gruesome and elaborate depiction of the final judgment. Whichever side you find yourself on – believer or not – it’s hard to deny that Hell has simply been ingrained into our cultural mind. Frighteningly, it’s something we all just know about, whatever side you fall on.
The Order of Gash
Then into the stygian mix appeared Clive Barker with his fresh and stylized vision of Hell – one that would reshape the concepts we earlier held onto – and redefined the landscape of horror for generations to follow.
Hellraiser did not begin on the silver screen, but at first was a sleeping dream locked between the pages of Barker’s beautifully composed The Hellbound Heart. In the novella, Barker retold the legend of Faust while interweaving it within a love story – a sick, perverted love story of taboo desires and damning passion.
Unhappy with the final results of his previous stories brought to film, Clive Barker himself would direct Hellraiser, and as result the movie became the final revision of his original idea. For a debut film, Barker made a name for himself in the field of horror and became a new legend.
But more than a horror writer/director – far more I would argue – Clive Barker is a contemporary philosopher who does scare us, but it’s not the visuals he gives us. It’s the concepts behind those visuals. Take, for instance, Hellraiser.
As I said before, we knew about Hell. The Hell-mouth awaited at the final dusk of mortal despair, the last desperate breath before the mortal chokes on his own bile and the lights leave his eyes. Then and only then could that man gain access to Hell.
In Hellraiser, Hell is not limited to the venues of death. Hell is all around us. We open Hell by our desires – however perverse they are, the more taboo the better in fact. The movie opens with the question, “What’s your pleasure, sir?” However way you answer, that will determine which layer – or lair – of Hell your needs will access.
Uncle Frank (Sean Chapman) – one of the villains/victims of the movie – opens the gateway. Seated in meditational pose within a square of lit candles, he puzzles over the riddle of the Box deep into the waning hours of night. Then, by fate or stupid coincidence, his makes progress. The Lament Configuration, stirs. Light glistens darkly from its lacquered sides. A bell tolls from a dimension waiting behind the walls of our consciousness, and vanilla light bars across the shadows as the reek of fragrant decay grows stronger around him.
Chains. Cold chains with hooked tips dig into the man’s flesh, sliding between muscle and bone, opening Frank like a wailing book, red on each turning page of flesh. And in the midst of all this structured mayhem of spiraling columns, and chains and succulent agony, are the Order of Gash, the priesthood of Hell and masters of all the secrets of pain.
That’s all within the opening segment of the movie, but already we – the watery-eyed audience – know what kind of film we are in for. This isn’t a typical horror movie, nor a slasher. There isn’t a virgin who will survive a masked killer in the end. This isn’t a good vs evil battle across nightmares or a chase through chainsaw massacres. This is a look into the perverted nature of all of our hearts. Told through Frank, and then through Julia (Clare Higgins) – but that comes later.
What we’ve learned from Hellraiser
Hell was always there. It was not disturbing Frank. There was no tempter whispering lustful promises of carnal ecstasy in his ear. No one made him open the box. Nor was there anyone forcing him to take it. “What’s your pleasure, sir?” he was asked. “The box,” he answered. He sought the Configuration out himself, paid for it, purchased it, became its newest owner and soon-to-be prey. But it was all because Frank wanted it, though he may not have understood the enormity of what he was about to unleash.
Frank’s desires opened Hell, welcomed it in, and we are left with a dire warning. It’s true the heart wants what the heart wants, but the heart might not be so trustworthy at times with its own curious desires. Deep stuff for a horror film released in the latter end of the 80’s. It’s a brilliant achievement of independent cinema, one that makes us think while being entertained at the same time. Audiences left the show with a fresh new respect for Hell, a Hell that inhabits the world around us and can be unlocked at any time if we’re not careful.
Julia’s role is one similar to Frank’s, though told from the perspective of feminine determination and strength. She’s married to Frank’s brother, and their marriage is strained at best, but her heart belongs to Frank – a man who truly understood how to make her skin perspire with need and want. Through the course of the movie’s narrative Julia becomes hell-bent in getting what she too desires – Frank back into her life. And this beautiful wife becomes a savage murderer in order to get what she wants. Never once does she consider the consequences of her selfish need for that just-beyond-her-reach pleasure. But lo! She’s found a way to obtain that pleasure, and blood washes off her hands easy enough.
Clive Barker presents humanity at its most primal as well as its most interesting state of being. Frank and Julia are not monsters or demons, but their actions are hellish by our moral standards. They lure unsuspecting men into their house of carnage, beat them to death and leave them to die on a moldy attic floor. Frank drains the fluids leaking from their bodies in order to regenerate himself. Julia provides him sustenance and holds to the promise that they both will be together forever.
The Cenobites are unbiased observers. They do not punish the wicked for their sins. They do not judge either of Frank or Julia’s actions as right or wrong. There is a cold indifference in how Doug Bradley plays the iconic Pinhead. The Cenobites are demons to some, and angels to others. They answer the call from beyond, and they welcome each one of us who unlock the puzzle of the box to Hell.
After thirty years, Hellraiser is still my absolute favorite horror film. Both it and its sequel (Hellbound) delve into the depravity and desperation of the human heart. This has been Manic Exorcism, and I welcome you to Hell.
Fin: The Hellraiser trilogy was released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video. For more information on the handsome collection, please click here