Horror Films: Pleasure and Pain Indivisible – The Hellraiser Saga

Angels to some, demons to others.  All Hallows and its Eve may be the perfect time for them. If only those Cenobites would have just fitted in…

THIS PAST HALLOWEEN-TIDE I found myself compiling a list of the horror icons of film as residing in this crypt.  You know the deal: the big guys at the top of the Evil Dead tree with some sort of especially horrific MO that, like a Bond villain, sets them apart from the wolf pack.  The genre’s broad, even when reduced to those figureheads, but soon enough the usual suspects fell into the main camps of cinematic horror.

First the classic, early, and mostly literary adaptations, popularized by Universal Studios and then Hammer:  In my example, Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula made the cut, with added Jekyll and Hyde for variety.

Second there were the slashers: those descendents of Norman Bates, who sprang up with a vengeance after the first Halloween movie with a variety of knives, machetes and cleavers.  These guys reached their peak in the 1980s and have never really disappeared.  While they can’t rival the adaptive quality of their forebears, these slashers often sustained franchises of eight films or more, ensuring them a place in popular culture.  Thirdly, there was just a little room for the inbetweeners of the monster world:  the Oscar winning Hannibal Lecter and very 21st century Jigsaw Killer made the cut.  These fellows are often, but not always, set apart from the others by their lack of supernatural.  Their ranks often swelled by countless generic slashers.  Occasionally, a latter-day supernatural spin on a classic may also swing round and bolster them – Lestat for example.

With a scope spanning two centuries, I was fairly pleased with my final list of (had to be) 13, but there was an omission: sadly the one icon whose name I wrote down first, just didn’t fit despite my best efforts.  He’s the 130 or so year old owner of a perforated face: Hellraiser’s Pinhead.

He’s the 130 or so year old owner of a perforated face

Hellraiser’s been a major horror franchise for almost 30 years, and its poster boy has been referenced in all sorts of popular media during that time.  Pinhead is lodged in popular culture, despite slipping into trashy straight to DVD hell in the last decade, but it remains rather difficult to, er, pin him down.  It’s bad enough in a franchise which has little regard to Pinner’s motivation from film to film, but especially when he turns up fashionably late to a party with his fellow icons.  At least they can’t punch him in the face… not that this is their normal MO.

Lecter slashes his victims just the same as Michael Myers…

While some may turn their unbitten noses towards a good Dante paperback rather than see Lecter bundled in with Freddy Krueger, I think they’re fair game.  Many a great genre film actually crosses multiple genres, and horror is no different.  There’s barely a horror film which doesn’t have some form of romantic, domestic, classically tragic of other element; in fact a good horror demands it.  The dreams of a hermit are hardly an interesting stomping ground for Freddy Krueger; the angelic nine to five jobsworth doesn’t warrant Jigsaw’s attention. There has to be the semblance of a back story as light as it may be.  Even Jason Voorhees, owner of one of the most tenuous horror franchises, was more than giant machete-wielding ambassador for marriage.  His Friday the 13th franchise is an interesting example of multi-entry horror series: the infamous slasher wasn’t even intended to carry the franchise and didn’t gain his hockey mask until Part III.  While the Lecter back-story may be rooted in meticulous historical fact and draw on some particularly high-level culture, thanks to its source material, every Frankenstein adaptation isn’t far off.  James Whale’s classic 1931 adaptation, barely faithful to that source, was aiming at the same populist level in its time as the Saw or Friday the 13th movies are today.  Cinema is a business, and horror sells.  If it (rarely) has the support, talent and source material to overcome prejudice and win an Oscar or two, so much the better.  But on a base level, Lecter slashes his victims just the same as Michael Myers.  He’s just a little more talkative.

Franchise is both a wonderful catch-all term and relatively critic proof

Similarly with any franchise that approaches double-digits, there are inevitably purists and selective fans.  Hellraiser has these in abundance – and to some extent that’s a mark its creator and generally higher than average concept.  Some purists who will just about stretch to the first three films but baulk at the straight to DVD continuations.  Franchise is both a wonderful catch-all term and relatively critic proof.  Once rolling it can force its creator out or even lose its brand name – as The Wolverine will eventually prove.  A franchise sometimes springs from nowhere, but is almost immediately at the whim of many internal and external factors.  With regard to the creator aspect, as with many cultural greats – Star Wars being a pertinent example – it is seldom that it stays exclusively in their hands of its creator.  Even if it does, while fans may have many reasons to thank that originator, it’s almost impossible to keep a fan base happy – again: Star Wars.  With Hellraiser, a number of films fall under the Hellraiser brand and completely legitimately, although it irritates many, it’s a franchise of the purest type.  While the constituent elements unsurprisingly vary, like it or not, as of 2012 the Hellraiser film franchise crosses nine canonical films.

In case there’s any doubt about reception to new Hellraiser films, it’s worth remembering creator Clive Barker’s response to the eighth sequel, 2011’s Hellraiser: Revelations – fairly roundly considered to be a rush job to retain the film rights:

Hello, my friends. I want to put on record that the flic out there using the word Hellraiser IS NO FUCKIN’ CHILD OF MINE!” “I have NOTHING to do with the fuckin’ thing. If they claim its from the mind of Clive Barker, it’s a lie. It’s not even from my butt-hole.”

Okay then.  Not even… Never mind.  And fair enough: it’s not the best set of affairs. Not even Pinhead’s mum would have expected the ‘latest Hellraiser film’ to be a classic, partly because of the road much travelled since the purity and definitive Barker of the original films.  Fans are separated from fair-weather horror fans over their response to the ongoing franchise, whether they were there in the cinema in 1986 or have subsequently found them online…  A lot is made of the latter half of the franchise, generally marked by the division between parts four and five.  From there. rights holder Dimension Films was not averse to pinning the brand onto spec scripts that guaranteed a production that in turn guaranteed that they retained the rights.

But behind the rights and machinations, there were surely some noble-hearted creators behind Revelations who would probably have attempted the Lament Configuration for the chance to play their part in widening the Hellraiser universe (no tears please, it’s a waste of good suffering).  In that spirit, I’m considering the film franchise as a whole.   While not condoning the perpetuation of an increasingly diluted idea, as a rule I don’t believe that any work can be damaged by association.  Once released, it’s unchangeable.  Even in the grip of creator’s or other’s perpetual tinkering, the original remains.  Rightly or wrongly a saga here has grown and each film bears the Hellraiser name.  It’s for the viewer to decide and certainly in this case, there is no lack of evidence on either side.

I must admit that I haven’t seen that ninth installment, less from partisanship, more the fact that it stays resolutely shy of Region 2 (banned from its ‘creator’s homeland’!?).  Still, in parallel with the burgeoning films, there are many other parts of the franchise from merchandise to fan-art that are more agreeable and maintain the author’s original.  While the films may falter, the wonderful Hellraiser comic resurgence and the brewing novel The Scarlet Gospels continue.

I can hardly play Devil’s Advocate here – for reasons I’ll explain later – but in applying a non-fan objectivity, despite the horror of it all, the eight film sequence that preceded Revelations throws up some interesting patterns of order among the inevitable dross of chaos.

While the depictions of hell and the motivation of the Cenobites changed as new creators came on board, the cynical attempt to keep the franchise going created an oddly neatly framed sequence of films.  Regardless of views on the motivation and end the result, they fall into two trilogies, each bookended by a genre anomaly, as demonstrated in this here Hellpie configuration:

Sure there’s dross, but again, it’s all about angels to some, demons to others; pain and pleasure indivisible.

The Hell Trilogy:  LON-NY


Cinematically, it all began in 1987: Hellraiser, directed by Clive Barker, adapted from his 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart.  In part, Barker’s film was a response to the wise-cracking antagonists of ‘80s slashers.  True, many were the silent, masked types, but Freddy Krueger sat atop the genre with a line for every slaying – whether that be his own or that of his victims.  Also, it must be said that those same victims – often a ragtag of hormonal students – were a homogenous lump of whimpering anti-charisma.  Barker also had some background with Frankenstein and would later executively produce the 1998 James Whale biopic Gods and Monsters.   In Hellraiser, the Cenobites were simultaneously a different proposition and a neat cross with their variation of the undead and slash horror.  Also different were the films ‘sufferers’.  In Hellraiser, there are barely any victims in any conventional sense.  Most humans call for a fate that they deserve; at the same time, Cenobites are not necessarily the human’s punishers nor vengeful Angels.  Certainly that is the case in the first sequence of films: when called they come.  They had such sights to show them – mentors as much as gaolers.  Later films would fall far more cleanly into morality tales.

A hierarchy of sorts is established in the opening films: the hell domain, a vagary of recent revolution and new (or rejuvenated) order of hedonism, and it that the order of Cenobites, ‘designed’ by the engineer and headed by the lead Cenobite affectionally called ‘Pinhead’.

That lead Cenobite emerged from the pages of Barker’s novella.  There, he was an ambiguous figure – a rather inauspicious start for a horror icon who has spanned not only the full nine films, but also further books and comics.  Never properly named – something Barker’s pending book, The Scarlet Gospels promises to resolve – he was simply the voice among the legion Cenobites.  It was not just all about his rather iconic, punctured profile.

The Cenobites have retained an ambiguity throughout the franchise, partly because of their treatment at the hands of different creators, regardless of the early films’ mythology.  Sometimes they’re ambivalent, sometimes open to deals, sometimes they seem to be simple agents of a moral universe.  All three murk the argument the films have thrown up: where do Cenobites come from?  Do they come from an Abrahamic hell or simply another dimension?  While some of the script and the films’ most visceral elements – such as Frank’s resurrection and death – suggest a form of death and a form of hell, it’s never clear if these aren’t metaphorical.  In human terms, it could be that the transfer to the Cenobite plain can only be perceived as death, and existence there as hell.  The ties of the Cenobites to their victims is certainly much more than death by fallen angels followed by imprisonment in a classical Hell – as catchy as those terms may be seem for the film titles.  It is clear that the constructs of the Cenobite’s Labyrinth sits in parallel with the infrastructure of Earth.  It is also clear that Cenobites are former humans, certainly those we see, but now have abilities gifted by the physical rules of their plain that they can bring to our world.  While the morality tales of the later films portray Pinhead as a far more overt punisher or Pin reaper, there remains the sense through all the films that the Lament Configuration portal is as much a giant con as a reward for those who seek the box; those who have always owned it.

You can read my review of the first Hellraiser here.

The brilliance of the first film was to instill the Cenobites with ambiguity while dwelling on those humans who must escape or join it; that’s where the main interest should lie.  Indeed, while the Cenobites are undoubtedly Hellraiser’s most iconic, brilliantly realized and significant contribution, it does the film a disservice to consider them alone.  Hellraiser the first is a domestic tragedy as much as anything.  In part II, this gave way to The Labyrinth/Hell itself in the second installment – quite possibly a match to its prequel.  Seen in possibly all its glory, the Labyrinth is more Escher than Dore, and a powerful image for it; Leviathan sits all-seeing above it like an angled Eye of Sauron.  Throughout, the patchwork of references in the Hellraiser fabric grew, whether that hell is order in its purest sense or corrupted.  The main protagonist of the second film, Channard, takes the idea of Cenobites as surgeons to its height.  His fight with the Cenobites complies nicely with the Aliens-esque rule of sequel expansion.

Barker’s involvement fizzled away by the third film, his Executive Producer credit falling off by part IV – a journey that had seen the Cenobites in Britain, Hell and the streets of America.  Part III, Hell on Earth nominally jumped a few sharks, albeit with the explanation of Channard’s actions in the previous film.  The efforts of the powerful Channard Cenobite abomination meant that come Part III, Pinhead needed some new acolytes, but the template for the creation of Cenobites without due-cause not only broke the Dantean/classical ironic punishment perspective but set an unfortunate license for the Cenobites to come.  Part IV and the twin Cenobites a particularly bad example of design and make-up overcoming script and casting.    Mainly, the Pinhead of Part III, unchained from his human side and creating Cenobites for fun, combined with a very literal attachment to club culture shreds the nuance of earlier films for in your face gore.    Part III also brought more infernal politics – further expanded in Part IV – with the suggestion of a revolt in hell; the restoration or corruption of order.  It could be a revolution an Abrahamic Hell, but Part III also contains the franchises’ most religiously unsettling scene.  That church sequence – Pinhead behind the alter in top discretionary form – has always sat quite uneasily with me.  But even an unusually unrestrained Pinhead leaves room for ambiguity.  He could be a disdain for any religion rather than a deliberate desecration of a Christian temple, and the hierarchy to which his demon belongs.

There is a strong link between the first three films, in tone, casting and sense, even remarkably Part III.  This is exacerbated by the fact that they are always linked on DVD.

hellraiser pullThe Bloodline Anomaly: Space and Time Indivisible


Following the initial trilogy came the franchises’ most ambitious entry, and undoubtedly its most flawed.  Bloodline had a grand scope, reaching from Philip Le Marchand’s creation of his ultimate puzzle box, the Lament configuration – ‘portal’ to and invite for the Cenobites – in 18th century France through to his descendents eventual defeat of Pinhead and co in the 22nd century. Oh, and in space.  Jumping into space for a fourth installment was fairly novel: it took Jason until Part X.  It was also a nifty way to ensure longevity: this is the ultimate Hellraiser story.  Unfortunately casting, budget problems and really, the lack of character continuity did in for the film.

It’s a mess, and a dull one in parts, although the ambition cannot be dismissed.  However, there’s still a nice creep to the robot opened Configuration and Cenobites roaming the corridors of a deserted space station, glimpsed on CCTV.

Narrative and stylistic links remain from the opening trilogy, but as a definite end for the Cenobites, it certainly wasn’t setting up things afresh, so what followed needed to be new.

The Morality Trilogy:  Dead, Deading, Deader


From the generally badly received Part IV, critical appraisal didn’t rise.  Hellraiser was still a brand strong and profitable enough to pursue, but the films that follows took a far different tack, visually and thematically departing from the previous four.  The three that follow each form a morality tale.

The main change, and in fact problem, was the characters.  The first two films had Clare, Channard and Frank.  Acting quality varied, but the films dwelt on their motivations.  Each had their own level of biblical sin propelling them to hell and their just punishment waiting for them: gaoling or mentorship of Pinhead.  By the fifth entry, Hellraiser: Inferno, the Cenobites quarry were one dimensional characters who may pull the wool over their fellow human’s eyes but are just lining their place in hell.  Previous devious and hedonistic enigmas were now just figures of easy vice.  And it’s not easy to hang a film off those.  So, while they navigate simple morality tales, they also role out detection to the audience.  In each one the tricks about guessing if and when you are in reality or hell.  It’s not a great drinking game.  In each case, the hell is an elaborately personalized one, far removed from Frank’s fate in the first film.

I’ve been fairly robustly heckled for calling out the noir aspect of Inferno.  True it can be overused to cover a magnitude of shadows.  There is little noir in the film by design, but as a definition of tough characters and danger in the bleakest setting it’s a neat fit for the Hellraiser as a whole.  As its less than subtle title infers, this film, like the sub- trilogy, doesn’t examine the character of Pinhead and his tribe so much as humans trapped in their own hell.  The result of the morality bolting becomes rather repetitive, but there are some plus sides.  The sixth film, Hellseeker, is generally the best received of the latter films, marking as it does a return of Kirsty from the first film.  She brings with her the Faustian pacts that gfeatured heavily int he first trilogy but despite this, the plot and Pinhead’s role are very similar to Inferno.  Part seven is slightly more interesting than it’s name suggests: Deader. The franchise had sunk deeply into Americana over the previous two films, but while the Eastern European setting and return to grunge may be cynical and budget saving, it’s also quite refreshing.  This is after all, the heartland of Dracula and the home continent of the Lament Configuration.  Deader is the most classically hell focused of the three, with a clear step-up in acting quality and Frankenstein connotations.  It has a protagonist and an antagonist, both full of interest.  Winter, the Le Marchand descendent antagonist is kept in the shadows for large part sof the films, but has the substance to rival the Clares and Channards of the earlier films, unsurprisingly inspiring one of the many Hellraiser fan films.  Deader also features a nice coda, stressing the transient futility of the main character’s choices on an oh-so cynical and cyclical Earth.

This sub-trilogy’s main fault is the reduction of the strength of Cenobites.  Its’ not all MTV, and the retreat of the hellfiends to the shadows could be admirable, but the bolted together scripts often lead to poor, repetitive reveals while pushing the focus onto weak characters.  The lead Cenobite, often appearing in disguise and alone is not strengthened as a result.  Pinhead may remain his philosophical self – Doug Bradley seemingly incapable of a bad performance – but he is reduced to a bit part.  The unearthly distance he had from Earth, the amoral, ambiguous order to which he belongs at the start of the franchise is long gone.

The Hellworld Anomaly: A New Nightmare


Sitting at the end of the morality trilogy’ is its variant of the Bloodline anomaly, but this time the spaceploitation is shunned in favour of New Nightmare irony.  Set as it is in the ‘real’ world, rather than the Hellraiser world.  Its’ to be assumed that is ‘reality’ and not a Cenobite construct of another ‘reality’ but can you ever be sure?  In this world, Hellraiser is certainly better appreciated than our own.  Amongst much merchandising and bandying around of the term ‘Cenobite’ the franchise (number of films not named) is an addictive and deadly MMORPG.  It’s an interesting distraction, and a complete turnabout – for the most part.  Oddly, it also signifies a full circle: whether imagined or otherwise, we follow a bunch of students being picked off one by one by Pinhead and his cronies.  One of them may be future Superman Henry Cavill, but we’re in a slasher film of the 1980s.  Emerging from a short story, Hellworld’s absolute nonsensical nonsense for the most part, and that sadly doesn’t cancel out, but it is strangely odd fun in the canon.  Plus, and it’s a big one, Lance Henriksen’s in it.  That’s a big plus – just see Aliens vs Predators.

There’s an endless amount of people a certain puzzle box is calling for…

hellraiser pull2Overall, the Hellraiser falls apart – or rather – is less interesting the further it moves from its literary and liturgy.  The early entries and subsequent comics mix its new, modern type of horror with an examination of the human condition and Faust, Dante and Paradise Lost.  Predating Saw, the victims for the most part shape their own punishment.  In addition, they draw on the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein and Hyde with moral conundrums, God analogies, the undead and double lives.  And then, with a ‘snikt’ of chains and hooks, there’s the most fundamental slaying of all: the law of diminishing returns.  The franchise, despite off references, struggles to find a new place in the horror pantheon.  The moral punishers in the latter films could be seen as misinterpretations of the Cenobites, but in fact are just far too one dimensional.  The mystery and ambiguity of their motives are crucial.  They may be partial to a Faustian pact or two because they hang around with Mephistopheles during their down-time or simply because it’s currency in their different dimension.  By portraying them as captors of those unfit for society, the Cenobites really do become those demons of an Abrahamic God, abiding by celestial rules.

In it’s 25th year, the Hellraiser franchise is productive if not coherent.  Clive Barker has the final book brewing, Dimension films are continually struggling to finalise a remake of the first film and the comic book rights remain in demand.  At least one thing’s for sure: there’s an endless amount of people a certain puzzle box is calling for.

‘Take it, it’s yours, it has always been yours’

Hopefully in the not-too-distant future we’ll again hear ‘Jesus Wept’ for the right reasons during a Hellraiser film.

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