By the mid nineteen eighties the British horror movie industry was dead. The heydays of Hammer Horror were long gone; the studio shuffled into the seventies with poor productions like Dracula AD: 1972 (1972) and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), trying to cash in on Hollywood zeitgeists. Amicus Productions went down similarly ill-judged pathways, their Tales From The Crypt (1972) anthology of increasingly dire content a microcosm of the home grown horror decline. One-off success stories such as Death Line (1972) and Theatre of Blood (1973) failed to stop the rot and by the end of the decade Britain had conceded defeat in the face of the American slasher boom.
There were very few purveyors of terror on UK shores intent on turning the tide, but in Liverpool one startling voice was determined to be heard. Clive Barker, a student of Liverpool University studying English and Philosophy, was an artist in a number of creative fields. His studies led to a brief foray into filmmaking, the surreal shorts Salome (1973) and The Forbidden (1978) showing signs of what was to come.
With movie work proving financially unsuccessful Barker focused on writing instead. The results were much more positive. Barker’s knack for original short stories, collected and published under the eye-catchingly named Books of Blood, received the ultimate endorsement in 1985 when the current champion of horror, Stephen King, rephrased a previous Bruce Springsteen tribute; “I have seen the future of horror. His name is Clive Barker” King championed. With an endorsement like that, Barker’s work began to get noticed. Taking a cautious step back into the film world he provided screenplays for two of his short stories, resulting in the movies Transmutations (1985) and Rawhead Rex (1986). The films were not well received though. Barker decided that if his fiction was to get the cinematic treatment it deserved he would have to get back behind the camera himself.
Barker’s second full length literary work, the 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart, was primed for a big-screen adaptation. Its Faustian tale of death and deceit with undercurrents of sexual deviancy was the best story Barker had concocted to date. Still, Barker was untested in conventional movie production. With a file of notes and drawings on what he had planned for his adaptation, Barker, together with producer friend Christopher Figg, secured a deal with New World Pictures. Though the budget was small Barker was able to obtain complete artistic control. Making the most of his talents the director cemented his reputation by turning in one of the most unique horror films of all time. Hellraiser (1987) became Barker’s calling card, a visually arresting example of the Liverpudlian’s distinctive brand of fright mongering.
The reputation that Hellraiser has these days precedes it; images of sado-masochistic killers rampaging through a legion of nubile women, a bloody mess left in their wake courtesy of nightmarish torture instruments. The uninitiated might be disappointed to discover that the original Hellraiser picture was a much more considered slice of horror. The working title Barker used whilst the movie was in production was Sado-Masochists From Beyond The Grave, a moniker even more expectation raising. It’s alleged that an American distributor wanted to rename the film What A Woman Will Do For A Good Fuck. Barmy as this suggestion may have been, as a descriptive title it was certainly more on the money.
We meet Frank, an unsavoury character who has searched the world for all the pleasures he can obtain. His pursuit not only led him to a one-night-stand with his brother’s wife Julia, but to a sticky end when he tangled with an ancient puzzle box, the Lament Configuration. Frank’s brother Larry and Julia move into Frank’s abandoned house and during the move Larry cuts his hand in the loft space where Frank died. As blood seeps through the floorboards it resurrects the spirit of Frank and his body begins to regenerate.
Remembering how enraptured she was by their first tryst, Julia agrees to aid Frank in his rejuvenation by bringing him fresh blood and bodies. Julia lures men back to the grotty loft room before murdering them for Frank’s consumption. With Frank partially reformed he informs Julia that he has broken the deal he had with the Cenobites, the demons contained in the Lament Configuration box. Larry’s daughter Kirsty discovers the pair’s plan and steals the puzzle box from Frank. Exploring the box Kirsty unwittingly releases the Cenobites and in return for her life she agrees to lead them back to Frank. The now fully formed Frank has completed his reformation by killing Julia and Larry; he now wears Larry’s skin. Admitting to these murders the Cenobites seek to reclaim Frank via a grisly crucifixion. But they also renege on their deal with Kirsty and she finds herself marked for death as well.
Despite Hellraiser’s startling looking villains, the Cenobites are supplementary to a story more focused on treachery and obsession. What gave Barker’s film its edge was the combining of this morality tale with a fantasy horror world so twisted it redefined the term. The reality of three-dimensional characters acting in a genuine self-preservative ways bled into the stories more fantastical aspects dragging them into the real world; the Cenobites looked startling but there was no doubt about their existence. For British audiences, placing such an other-worldly tale of terror in the oh-so familiar setting of a traditional semi-detached suburban house brought the horrors closer to home still.
And when it came to the horror Barker was not content with going over old ground. In the scary movie genre most good filmmakers strive to present something new, something so terrifying in its originality it ups the fright bar another measure. What Barker created twenty three years ago has still yet to be topped in terms of creative horror. The Cenobites were like nothing seen before. The opening tease of Frank finding ‘pain and pleasure indivisible’ called for something exceptional to be revealed when the puzzle box was finally cracked open. Even the most hardened horror fan could not have anticipated Pinhead and his cohorts gliding out of the walls.
Like the best villains in cinema, the Draculas, the Hannibal Lecters, their appearance is fleeting but their impression is immense. Barker later revealed that much of the inspiration for the Cenobites came from trips to the ‘S&M’ clubs of Amsterdam and New York. The punk, fetishist garb and torture instrument accessories sported by the Cenobites certainly attest to that, and they drew no easy comparisons when they were unleashed in 1987.
The central figure was the anonymously named “Lead Cenobite”; it was after the films release that fans nicknamed him Pinhead. An addition to the script, there was no Pinhead character in Barker’s original novella. The man who had to endure the six hours of make-up required to create this remarkable figure was friend and former colleague of Barker, Doug Bradley. Gathering a number of industry friends together to make Hellraiser, Bradley was offered two parts. The first was one of the removal men that help Larry and Julia into their new digs, and the second was the lead Cenobite. Believing that it would be better for his career to get his face on screen Bradley decided to nab the removal man role. But before shooting began he had a change of heart and plumped for the make-up heavy villain.
It proved to be an excellent choice for both Bradley and Barker. Pinhead is the voice of the Cenobites, their centre piece whose doom laden delivery of soon-to-be classic lines, "We’ll tear your soul apart", ensured the scares played just as straight as the drama did. These were intelligent beings, they had logic, albeit twisted logic “The box, you opened it, we came”, that could be appealed to if need be. The garish qualities of Pinheads contemporaries at the time (the slapstick of Jason Voorhees ridiculous returns from the grave, the quips and jokes of Freddy Krueger, the far-fetched cult hokum of Michael Myers) only highlighted Pinhead’s straight edged menace. There were also not many nightmare creatures in cinema that did not conform to the customary horror templates; Myers and Voorhees were Frankenstein-esque machines, Krueger a Grimm Brothers child catcher. But the Cenobites were different. While the boundaries of cinema had been pushed in terms of quantity with the buckets of blood multiplied, the era had yet to produce anything new in terms of content. Barker exploited a previously untapped source to astonish his viewers; sex.
Before 1987 few if any directors had been courageous enough to delve into the darker side of human sexuality. The undertones and connotations were there. Hitchcock had hinted at Norman Bates’ perverse sexual nature in Psycho (1960). Cronenberg had presented sex as a thinly veiled zombie metaphor in Rabid (1976). The stalk and slash genre had aligned sex with death as an excuse to display some bare breasts. Human nature consisting of two base primal instincts, consumption and reproduction, cinema seemed afraid to dabble in the latter. The darker side of eating had been dealt with by Romero years before, Night of the Living Dead (1968), and developed subsequently, for better or worse, Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Cannibal Ferox (1981), The Return of the Living Dead (1985).
But the deeper recesses of sexuality had been left alone. The evidence was there, the sexual motivation behind Ed Gein’s crimes must have been well known to Hitchcock and Robert Bloch. If nothing else, the act of penetration and discharge of bodily fluid had blindingly obvious parallels with acts of terror. The closest anyone had got prior to 1987 was the whiff of sexuality that hung around most Dracula adaptations. Hellraiser had more than just a whiff of sex, it reeked of it.
It’s an area that many viewers are still queasy about stepping in to. Barker let the uncomfortable be damned; there were sinister sides to physical pleasure and he was going to delve right in, "You must come with us, taste our pleasures". Julia maybe the film’s obvious sexual centre, the slight implausibility of her one knee-trembling evening in Frank’s arms turning her into a murderess (how good in bed can one man be?). Despite a solid performance from Clare Higgins her character has the flattest character arc, a horny update of the wicked stepmother routine. But away from Julia’s desire for further copulation the Cenobites blur the lines between sexual pleasure and horrific pain, preying upon people’s inability to help themselves when faced with the height of earthly pleasures.
It’s this unconscious desire that takes over a person and makes them helpless that was embodied by Julia, heightened by Higgins moments of glassy eyed wistfulness and Barker’s occasional employment of soft focus. As well as being pulled in by possible bodily delights it also leaves Julia completely vulnerable and at the mercy of someone else. When those wielding the power are Cenobites, "Explorers in the further regions of experience", who knew what might happen. The black leather, the chains, the darkness, the sharp tools, stimuli that may lead to physical delights and transformations an audience would not even dare to imagine. For those only use to a once-a-month missionary style tryst, the unfamiliar prospect of sex as something much more disturbing was frightening indeed. The film only hints at what the Cenobites might be doing to unfortunate souls back in whatever realm they’ve come from, but the thought of hideous acts that might entail was more than enough. That Barker’s picture was aligned with the raising of the AIDS epidemic in media circles only added to the unease.
When New World Pictures saw the daily rushes from Barker’s film they were so astounded they agreed to up the budget. It was still a modest picture though and Barker had to make the most of what he had. Most of the filming was confined to Frank’s house at 55 Ludovico Road and Barker chose a real semi-detached house to shoot in. Though cramped and often only allowing for single camera takes, the tight setting helped to confine the cast and ground the story. When it was time for the Cenobites to appear Barker retreated to the sound stage for the films one and only set, the loft space. Superbly lit with white and blue light slicing through broken wall slats, and chillingly soundtracked with clinking chains, creaking wood, and stretched groans, it makes for the perfect gateway to a dark realm within the dusty confines of a suburban setting. Covered by a frosty Christopher Young score that bucked the trend of the time for nauseating keyboard soundtracks Hellraiser heightened all the senses.
Placed into this murky morality tale was the viewer’s singular ally, Kirsty. The same year as Hellraiser’s release, academic Carol J Glover published her now famous article Her Body, Himself: Gender In The Slasher Film. It was an important dissecting of the recent wave of slice and dice pictures with its key notion of the ‘Final Girl’, a feisty, morally sound female lead that is usually the sole survivor of a horror film. Ashley Laurence made for an excellent Final Girl, a sometimes quavering but resolute voice against both the Cenobites and her nefarious family members. To complete the cast Barker acquired the talents of Dirty Harry’s (1971) demented sniper Andrew Robinson. His double performance as the hapless Larry and the odious reincarnation of Frank raised the movie further (he also added the infamous “Jesus Wept” line, preferring it to Barker’s requested “Fuck you” final Frank quote). With Frank becoming the ultimate villain it places the Cenobites on even more unsettling ground. Their treatment of Kirsty in the final moments flits back and forth unpredictably, ‘this is not for your eyes’, making them impossible to judge with the usual cinematic sensibilities. Were these villains friend or foe, and where exactly did they come from?
Fans did not have to wait long for answers. The critical success of Hellraiser and the rapid spread of its reputation called for a swift sequel. Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) began shooting the same year as Hellraiser’s release. Barker wrote the story, whilst Peter Atkins took on screenwriting duties and Tony Randel got behind the camera. Laurence and Higgins returned, and Bradley donned the pinned make-up again. The plot saw Kirsty placed in a mental home shortly after the events of the first movie. A supposed note from her father scrawled in blood and asking for help leads Kirsty back to the puzzle box. This time she ventures onto the Cenobites home turf but comes across a new demon even more horrific than the original crop of leather clad killers.
Whilst Barker managed to work wonders with a small budget, the stunning visual work only let down by some slightly shoddy electrical effects, Randel struggled with the resources at his disposal. The problem was scope. Barker had a fairly confined story to tell, while Randel had to present a vision of hell itself, no mean feat in a pre-CGI age. The movie was rescued by a continuation of the lurid imagery of the first picture and a surprising character arc for Hellraiser’s crew of villains. Pinhead is revealed to be a former army officer (Bradley finally got his real face on screen) who tangled with the Lament Configuration years before, while his fellow tormentors are shown to have equally human origins. It made for an interesting concept for a horror sequel, reversing the perception of the previous movies evil protagonists.
The good work was undone four years later with Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth (1992). With Pinhead resurrected via a convenient plot device, he somehow finds himself stalking a string of teenagers in a nightclub while a television journalist investigates the puzzle box phenomenon. Atkins and Randel returned, but Barker’s input was, most tellingly, minimal. A poor critical reception did not prevent the series from marching on.
Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (1995) flung Pinhead into the future for a tale that explored the origins of the puzzle box, told by a relative of the boxes creator in the year 2127. Part four was also the last Pinhead outing to make it onto the big screen. Part five, Hellraiser: Inferno (2000), went straight to video, along with Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002), Hellraiser: Deader (2005) and Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005).
By the time of the ninth film, Hellraiser: Revelations (2011), even Doug Bradley had had enough and declined to continue playing the role that had made his career. Another Bradley-less instalment arrived seven years later, Hellraiser: Judgment (2018), which, whilst better than all of the direct-to-video instalment before it, was still lacklustre. A remake of Barker’s original film has been mooted for some time now with various directors and scripwriters attached. Bradley himself has said he would be willing to return to the Pinhead role if a film version of The Scarlet Gospels is made, Barker’s 2015 novel follow-up to the original The Hellbound Heart novella. In May 2019 it was finally announced that the long-awaited remake will be in the hands of Batman Begins (2005) screenwriter David S. Goyer, on writing and producing duties. The director’s chair and Pinhead’s make-up, if indeed he is set to feature, remain vacant for now.
Clive Barker has thus far failed to top his 1987 masterpiece, at least on the big screen. A collaboration with David Croneberg should have led to the most twisted horror film of all time, but Nightbreed (1990), an adaptation of Barker’s Cabal story, whilst imaginative lacked the narrative power of Hellraiser. In 1992 Candyman (1992) became the second Barker story achieve box office and critical success, but the writer had little input on the project besides providing the literary springboard for the script. Barker had another throw of the directorial dice with Lord of Illusions (1995) but another intriguing story premise was lost in a muddled final film; critics and fans were unmoved.
After 1995 Barker returned to writing and art, leaving the film world to move on without him. As well as failing to turn Barker into the next John Carpenter, Hellraiser also failed to kick start the British horror movie industry. But where could a screenwriter or director go after such an exceptional film? Many fans were still dumbstruck by the Cenobites explosive arrival in 1987 and so were most filmmakers. The odd British success story appeared now and again, 28 Days Later (2002), Eden Lake (2008), but it seemed that Barker, Pinhead and company had terrified audiences to such a degree no one thought they could top them.
See also Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988), Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth (1992), Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (1995), Hellraiser: Inferno (2000), Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002), Hellraiser: Deader (2005) and Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005), Hellraiser: Revelations (2011), and Hellraiser: Judgment (2018)