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08 August 2011
So to call Clive Barker, who shot the prominence in the early 1980s, one of the most renowned horror writers of the 20th Century isn't really saying very much - you couldn't even fill out a Top Ten of such authors without hitting names sufficiently obscure that only a specialist is likely to have actually read any of their work. But still: Clive Barker is one of the absolute pinnacles of 20th Century horror, a man whose influence is as profound, if probably less widespread, as that of good ol' Steve King himself, and whose work is quite possibly the most intelligent that his genre has ever produced; for it is in Barker's fiction that we find perhaps the most sustained and successful expression of the Horror of Ideas, works which unnerve and terrify not chiefly because of the otherworldly things they depict, but because of the nightmarish truths they imply about the cobwebby recesses of human psychology.
In addition to being a prose stylist, Barker is and has been something of a multimedia enthusiast: a visual artist who has illustrated his own works, a prominent supporter of video games as narrative experience, a comic book writer, and most significantly for our purposes, a lover cinema, beginning with a pair of student films. And thereon hangs the tale, for the 1987 film Hellraiser, is among other things the feature directorial debut of Barker, who also wrote the screenplay adapting his novella The Hellbound Heart to screens (it was the third of his works to make it to the movies; Underworld and Rawhead Rex, both with Barker-penned scripts, preceded it and both managed to disappoint the author in the process), and quite a promising debut it was. There are more than a few places where its undeniably over-worked, in the manner of a first-timer whose ideas outstrip his comfort level in visualising those ideas, and the whole thing is just sufficiently inelegant to not really deserve its massive reputation as one of The Most Amazing Horror Movies of the '80s Ever - though given what the '80s were, it's still pretty miraculous. Recall, that the stuff of R-rated horror cinema was by 1987 left for dead as the province of the long played-out slasher movies, and this sort of full-throated sexualised body horror hadn't really been seen in English-language filmmaking since David Cronenberg began drifting from the genre earlier in the decade.
Barker's screenplay for the movie hews quite closely to The Hellbound Heart in all but the essentials: a hedonist named Frank (Sean Chapman) purchases an elaborate puzzle box from a shady black marketeer in the Middle East; upon solving it, he is instantly plunged into a world of inconceivable suffering, where violent death by dismemberment is just a light warm-up. Some time later, his brother, Larry (Andrew Robinson, making his second appearance in the Summer of Blood, 2011 Edition - he was also in Child's Play 3) and Larry's wife Julia (Clare Higgins) move into the same house where Frank was zapped into a hell dimension, and a random accident involving blood dripping on the floorboards resurrects Frank, as a grotesque, shambling collection of bones and half-expressed musculature (in this heavily-latexed form, he is played by Oliver Smith, a smaller man in a thick suit). Frank, it seems, had an affair with Julia on the very eve of her wedding, and he's now using the influence he still holds over her - we quickly get the impression that she hasn't had satisfying sex even once since then - to convince her to bring men to his garret and kill them, so that he can feast on their blood and continue to restore his deformed body. The most substantive change is that Larry's daughter by a previous marriage, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), is on hand to witness all of this and fight her stepmother and her zombie uncle; in the book, she was Larry's (or Rory, as he was called then) ex-flame. The change absolutely favors the movie; grown daughter and wicked stepmother and creepy incestuous uncle made up of disintegrating parts is simply more unique than the old chestnut of a jealous ex-girlfriend, though honestly, it doesn't alter things much either way.
The real changes are largely thematic; or rather, they relate to how the theme is expressed. In both cases, the Cenobites - the hellish figures torturing Frank in whatever unfathomable space he has ended up - are something like the avatars of the extremest form of BDSM, mutilating their bodies in hideous ways to explore the outer reaches where ultimate pain and ultimate pleasure commingle and where spirit and body collide and collapse (the very word, "cenobite", has a religious connotation - it refers to someone living in a monastic community). In both cases, Frank is so tired with the licentiousness of normal people that he actively pursues the Cenobites in the hope of finding a new horizon of ecstasy. In the book, all of this is made quite explicit; in the movie, it's buried pretty deep, while the whole thing is made much more ethically monochromatic - Julia and Frank are infinitely more detestable onscreen than on the page, while the amoral Cenobites of the book are turned into something approximating traditional Judeo-Christian demons.
This doesn't make Hellraiser something less than The Hellbound Heart; better to say that it is something different, with a significantly re-directed focus. In fact, the movie is much better than the book in certain key ways: it is far more viscerally disturbing and frightening, while the book is all stuck in its own head, disquieting at best in its exploration of the dark recesses of sensuality. This difference comes down, simply, to showing vs. telling: it's one thing to read about the ghastliness of the Cenobites and their tortures, another to see the pale-faced man with spikes driven into his face (Doug Bradley) and still another to see the creature invented just for the movie that combines a wasp's stinger with a gross parody of a fleshless human skull and an uncertain arthropod body structure; to say nothing of Frank's gruesome reconstruction into humanoid form out of pools of murky fluid bubbling from the floor.
Basically, you can write as much about physical deformation as you like, but for the real meat and potatoes of body horror, nothing beats the cinema, where you can actually demonstrate with lovingly gory detail exactly what you had in mind. And Clive Barker is a man who has plenty of imagination about such things, which means that, in its best moments, Hellraiser is an absolutely exquisite piece of visually shocking horror. It's not an accident that Bradley's Pinhead became one of the last iconic horror monsters of the era of Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger; only Chucky the sarcastic serial-killing doll was to follow, one year later. The most outré of the group, Pinhead is hard to shake, even if you've just seen him as a still photo: a sick parody of human beings, with his deathly white skin and black eyes, and yet it's not beyond reason to think you could see a less-ambitious version of his massively-pierced cranium walking along quite as if nothing is the matter. We live in an age of body modifications being performed in suburban shopping malls; it's a far more liberal state of things than Barker would have known in '86 and '87, but then as now, Pinhead is a perverse exaggeration of humans, not something completely other than human.
The conceit of the story is, after all, that sado-masochism is an ancient tradition & not just the privilege of post-1968 kinksters. Which is true, after all, but in the sexually neurotic Western culture in which we live, that's a bold thing to state in a movie, and it was bolder still in the era of Thatcher and Reagan, when cultural conservatism was at its post-WWII height, give or take the overstated conservatism of the Eisenhower years. In that context, Hellraiser isn't just a discomfitingly sexualised vision of death and suffering; it's an act of cultural warfare. I suppose that a sufficiently dedicated queer cinema expert could trace a line between Barker's homosexuality and his deployment of boundary-shattering sexuality in his first movie; not, good Lord, that I'm suggesting Barker would have been into the sorts of things the Cenobites pursue, but marginalised sexual subcultures will tend to find common cause, and the '80s weren't the happiest time to be a gay man, for more than one reason.
A lot of this is hidden just under the surface of the movie; it's both a blessing and a curse that Hellraiser says less than The Hellbound Heart, for one the one hand, subtlety is always a plus, but on the other, Barker sometimes runs the risk in Hellraiser of not making anything clear at all: as it is, all our cues that Hellraiser is a study of extreme sexuality come through in the form of innuendo, and if it weren't for the fact that the Cenobites are all wearing, effectively, bondage gear, I can't say that I'd have been willing to make the jump at all. The book is infinitely more "about" sex, let us say, while the movie is "about" the sufferings of Hell. Both of which make for a good subject, and in both cases Barker's visual sense is a triumph of the first order.
For all that it is an incredible, and incredibly disturbing, film to look at, though, Hellraiser doesn't entirely click as a narrative; it obfuscates a lot of details, leaving the identity of one character (a bearded hobo, played by Frank Baker) confusing even after the big shock ending - which can only be explained with recourse to explicitly Christian idea of Hell that the film has not, to this point, encouraged. To say nothing of character motivations, which are implied more than they are stated, nor are things helped by the generally limp performances of any of the leads; not until the singularly idiosyncratic Final Girl sequence kicks in does Laurence bother to do much besides look alternately concerned and flirtatious, while Higgins freezes herself in a single expression of Icy Bitch Queen and rides it through the whole movie (and, for some reason, this reminded me of Catherine O'Hara's performance in Beetlejuice; aye, but that character was meant to be a parody of '80s pop culture's depiction of the savage cunt professional woman, not an example of it). Robinson is too mildewy to leave any impression - this is a deliberate thing, I suspect, but not any more pleasant because of it - and Oliver Smith lets his make-up do all the acting. Which he can get away with, because the make-up is fucking amazing.
And that's really the thing, ain't it? Some movies are character-proof. Hellraiser could undoubtedly do a better job of telling its story, and of making it clear what the moral outline of that story is, but it constantly feels like Barker was mostly interested in putting a body-horror spin on the old haunted house tale, a clattering monster in the attic who looked like he'd been sitting in Satan's digestive tract for a while. The hair-raising impact of the film's best moments more than outweighs its lapses, and let us not make a mistake: when I refer to its flaws, I'm not grading on a curve. Hellraiser is less than perfect as a movie qua movies, but as a shot of nasty, kinky energy into the dessicated corpse of late-'80s horror, this is a stone-cold masterpiece.
Body Count: 6 - add one depending on how you feel about people who die twice - plus three rats, all of them faked, one in a particularly colorful manner.
Reviews in this series
Hellraiser (Barker, 1987)
Hellbound: Hellraiser II (Randel, 1988)
Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (Hickox, 1992)
Hellraiser: Bloodline (Smithee [Yagher], 1996)