Tom Jolliffe takes a look back at Clive Barker’s Hellraiser…
For a good few years, rumours of a Hellraiser reboot have been on the table. The whispers and near starts have persisted for a long time along with a number of other false starting reboots like Highlander and The Crow. Now it appears that HBO will be re-inventing Hellraiser for the TV format with David Gordon Green potentially involved (and that involvement offers much promise).
Pinhead (played with relish for the most part by Doug Bradley, before he got fed up going back to the well) is one of horror cinemas most enduring images. Like most horror icons, the character in his Hellraiser franchise would end up bastardised and sanitised and brought out of retirement once too often. Leaving aside the sequels though (I do love the first two sequels I should say), looking back at the first film is to see a work of visionary brilliance.
Clive Barker’s feature debut saw an inexperienced director brought on board to helm an ambitious (albeit low budget) horror project. Why so? Well of course because Barker was already an icon of horror literature and Hellraiser would be his adaption of his own novella, The Hellbound Heart. Barker had written a few screenplays by this point and wasn’t new to that process and he had directed a couple of horror shorts in his early 20’s. In the end, Barker worked creatively around his budget and locations to create a film that remains visually striking and still effectively gruesome.
Hellraiser blended elements of sadomasochism with demonic and body horror. It’s a grotesque film which effectively also managed to pull a mid-film protagonist shift, from Clare Higgins, who initially becomes entangled in her brother-in-laws dealings with the cenobites. The adulterous lust, turning to obsession, and then murder as she lures men to their death in order for Frank to become flesh again. By the time her arc turns to pure evil, it turns to her step daughter, played by Ashley Laurence who must find a way to stop the cenobites (lead by the eponymous Pinhead).
The make up FX and gore are all exceptional, particularly considering the fairly low budget. Likewise too, Barker’s approach to shooting the film in confined spaces adds to an engaging visual dynamic. It really does look great. Fantastic use of lighting as well. Everything you’d expect for a film considered a horror classic. Hellraiser has also certainly benefited from some beautiful Blu-Ray editions too (I have the Arrow edition at home which is great). Pinhead as an image of horror has always been brilliantly effective, particularly (as in the first one) when often doused in blue light. He’s never better than this original film when he remains mysterious and turns up irregularly to project his menace.
As far as the themes of the film and that sadomasochistic underbelly and lustful sexuality of the unfaithful with and brother-in-law, the film was something fresh when it arrived. It would prove contentious in places among the censors of course but among some of the more gruesome visuals in morbid, fleshy detail, a lot of the horror is psychological too, and much of the unseen is also effective. The hellworld beyond, where the cenobites lie in wait would offer up plenty of surreal horror in the sequels but the original film does just enough horror fantasy to not be silly, and retain an overriding sense of fear. Hellraiser stood as a film ahead of its time with a uniquely horrific vision.
As the franchise descended into straight to video disappointment, it became clear that centralising Pinhead too much was never a good idea, where the overarching interest in the original lies in the dynamics between Frank and Julia, and then Kirsty’s interactions with the others as she becomes suspicious of the goings on in the house. The sexual dynamics with Frank and Julia bring heat, bring engagement. In an odd and grotesque way the film begins almost as erotic thriller, which takes a demonic and horrific turn. Sequels up the levels of elaboration, or just get plain sillier, or put too much back story into a horror character that should remain an enigma. Hellraiser works because it’s not purely a horror story, which most of the sequels tended to forget.
As far as rebooting this as a film, the idea doesn’t appeal to me as a viewer. How can you make it as fresh and engaging as the original was? In TV form though…something very engaging could be made, particularly if they try to step away from riffing too much from the original film. If the series can have that dark and disturbing impact of American Horror Story too, then it should be effective.
What are your thoughts on the original Hellraiser and the upcoming TV series? Lets us know in the comments or on our Twitter page @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner Kira Reed Lorsch) and Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/