In light of all the gay bashing in recent American politics, I sometimes wonder what it must be like for homosexual teens to have the world proclaim them hell-bound degenerates for a drive that, whether innate or acquired (honestly, who cares so long as no one gets hurt?), has become integral to their very beings. Having come out of the proverbial closet in the mid nineties, Clive Barker knows a thing or two about overcoming this prejudice, but I contend the stigma surrounding his sexuality lies at the heart of his first feature film, Hellraiser.
To be clear, I don’t meant to compare gays with skinless Uncle Frank (Sean Chapman), who gleefully sacrifices his family to live out his basest urges, or with the otherworldly Cenobites, whose grotesque appearances bear a curious resemblance to the homophobic stereotypes found in movies like Cruising (1980) and Police Academy (1984). Rather, I’m suggesting Hellraiser (along with its source novella The Hellbound Heart) conveys in horrifying detail the shame that comes with dreading your own instincts.
The plot centers on Julia (Clare Higgins), a discontent housewife who, through circumstances I dare not spoil except to praise the special effects, resurrects her brother-in-law Frank, with whom she once had an affair. Claiming to have escaped a hell dimension where pleasure and torture are deemed indistinguishable, Frank enlists Julia’s help to lure unsuspecting perverts so he can suck out their flesh and make himself whole again. Things go bust when his niece Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) uncovers a puzzle box that can summon his former jailers: the Cenobites.
In a way, much of Hellraiser plays like a twisted retelling of Snow white and the Seven Dwarves, with Kirsty as the plucky princess, Julia as the evil stepmother, and Frank as the magical mirror whose attention keeps shifting to younger specimens. The Cenobites function both as the friendly dwarves, who offer their aid from the fringes of civilisation, and Prince Charming, who proposes to whisk the heroine away forever after. The difference lies in their limited presence proving neither friendly nor charming, which is not to say Pinhead (Doug Bradley) and his subordinates fail to leave an impression.
In fact, Bob Keen’s surreal makeup effects have made Pinhead an icon of modern horror. What haunts me most about the character, though, is his self-perceived gentility, the way, for example, he invites Kirsty out of the room before his most gruesome assault, either to spare the girl ungodly sights or to afford his prey some privacy. Unlike Freddy and other slasher monsters of the time, the Cenonites don’t taunt, chase, or even kill. Instead, the demons (angels to some) lie in wait, confident our lust will lead us back to them. After all, their eternal torture means to reward our carnal curiosity, not condemn it: “We have such sights to show you!”
In essence, the Cenobites embody Julia’s fate as a woman who damns her soul to recapture the bone of her life. Hellraiser, you see, pertains to her character, not Kirsty or the puzzle box. Consider the way the film layers every step of her descent with doubt and humanity, emphasising her reluctance to harm a husband (Andrew Robinson) she’s come to pity more than love. It’s impossible to condone the adulteress’ murderous actions, but the more introspective among us may find her madness eerily familiar. At one time or another, we’ve all caught ourselves thinking with our loins instead of our brains.
Of course, I didn’t catch any of this subtext when I first saw the flick as a kid. Since then, the Hellraiser treasure box has spawned eight sequels, twenty-one short stories, and even a comic book series or five, but the original movie keeps finding its way back into my DVD rotation, revealing new facets and pleasures with every viewing. Each time I unlock a piece of the puzzle, I can’t help but wonder what nightmare I’m inviting into my subconscious. Whether that’s heaven or hell, I’ll let you decide.