What's Your Pleasure, Sir?

by Arthur B

Revisiting the early Hellraiser movies.
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Despite being one of the more original and imaginative splatterpunk authors, and despite moving away from that field to concentrate more on ornate fantasy works, and despite being involved with a number of cinematic oddities (including cult favourite Candyman), Clive Barker is doomed to be known mostly for being the creative mind behind Hellraiser, one of the more unusual horror franchises to emerge from the 1980s. Although the iconic images of the movies tend to revolve around Pinhead, the pan-dimensional BDSM enthusiast who knows of no boundaries and doesn't give two shits about your safeword, the better movies in the series don't revolve around Pinhead as a character - instead, like Pyramid Head in Silent Hill, he's more of a symbol and a plot element, something that pops up mostly to motivate more relatable human characters in what they get up to.

Barker walked away from the franchise long ago, and wasn't afraid to express his distaste for the more recent entries in the series. (Of the most recent one, Hellraiser: Revelations, he said it was "NO FUCKIN' CHILD OF MINE!" and that "If they claim it's from the mind of Clive Barker, it's a lie. It's not even from my butt-hole.") However, more recently there were reports that Barker had had some productive meetings with the head of Dimension and a Barker-helmed reboot of the series may be on the cards. Now, then, is a good time to look at the first three films of the sequence and see what there is that's worth bringing back from them - and what we can say about Barker's contribution to horror from their distinguishing features.

Hellraiser


Larry Cotton (Andrew Robinson) and his second wife Julia (Clare Higgins) have moved to London from the USA, returning to Larry's childhood home which has sat abandoned since the death of Larry's parents, because Larry's brother Frank (Sean Chapman), who jointly owns it, always refused to sell the place. Entering the house and finding the mouldering debris of Frank's last visit brings back a flood of memories to both parties, for different reasons. Larry is reminded mostly of how Frank is an utter reprobate, spending much of his life on the wrong side of the law and on the run for one reason or another. Julia, however, finds herself overcome by recollections of an intensely passionate affair she had with Frank when he came to visit for the wedding, during which they discovered a mutual desire for increasingly daring sexual experimentation and for blurring the lines between sex and violence.

Both Larry and Julia have underestimated Frank; Larry doesn't realise just how transgressive Frank's activities in life have been, and Julia has no idea of the lengths Frank has gone to in order to attain the ultimate thrill. For Frank is one of those poor souls who have been daring enough to go looking for, and been cursed enough to find, the Lament Configuration - a puzzle-box which acts as a gateway to the realm of the Cenobites, immortal supernatural entities that bestow upon those who contact them experiences which combine infinite suffering and unlimited pleasure. Frank unlocked the Lament Configuration in the attic of the house, and the Cenobites calmly, leisurely tortured him until all that was left of his body was tiny shreds, before transporting him and all evidence of their passing back to their home realm.

However, it's not a one-way trip, and Frank isn't quite as far away as Larry and Julia think he is. As Julia is standing in the attic, lost in a mixture of fondly recalling her sexual interactions with Frank and mourning the end of their affair, Larry comes in and bleeds on the floor. Perhaps it's just the blood that does it, or perhaps the mixture of Larry's blood and Julia's savouring of her lust for Frank and betrayal of Larry is what was called for; either way, the end result is that Frank is able to force his way out of the Cenobites' torture dimension in a grotesque form (played by Oliver Smith). When Julia discovers Frank lurking in the attic, he implores her to help him; just a few murders should shed enough blood for him to reconstruct himself, and then he and Julia can get away from the house - for the Cenobites will come chasing after him sooner or later. Julia starts by picking up anonymous men in bars and taking them home to kill and feed to Frank, but sooner or later she needs to decide just how keen she is to repair her marriage to Larry - or, for that matter, whether she really cares to build bridges with Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), Larry's daughter from his first marriage that Julia has never quite managed to warm to. When Kirsty, concerned about Larry and Julia's marriage, starts to investigate, it isn't too long before she attracts the attention of the Cenobites, who are soon hot on the trail of their escaped playmate - and aren't averse to taking a few extra friends back home with them.

At the time of the movie's release, Clive Barker's writing was known for combining a surreal imagination with really visceral gore, which of course creates both a visual challenge and an excellent creative opportunity when it comes to translating such visions to film. Here, the special effects work depicting both the mundane injuries done to characters and the more supernatural ones are excellently accomplished; the sequence of Frank painfully resurrecting himself being one of the highlights of the film, as well as the various makeup jobs applied to Sean Chapman to follow the progress of Frank's gradual reconstruction of a semblance of humanity.

At the same time, though, Hellraiser also reveals Barker as a quietly gifted director, since he directed this one as well as writing the script (an adaptation of his novella The Hellbound Heart). With so many horror movies revolving around younger characters, it's interesting to see one which for well over half of its running time is actually focused on middle-aged adults; Kirsty only gets well and truly embroiled in the plot comparatively late in the game, and up to then the movie is less of a conventional horror story about a sympathetic protagonist facing a terrifying threat and is more reminiscent of something like Possession, where most of the active characters are either doing vile, reprehensible things or are there just to be the main characters' victims.

Even then, once Kirsty becomes part of the action she beats Frank's evil not because of any intrinsic virtue of her's, but because she's able to strike a bargain with the Cenobites - her freedom in exchange for leading them to the fugitive Frank. Indeed, to a large extent the major monster of the movie is not Pinhead, who is merely the spokesman of the Cenobites, but Frank, whose actions push Julia into serial murder and puts people at risk from the Cenobites in the first place. The various Hellraiser sequels are always at their strongest when they remember that, despite being the star of most of the posters for the series, Pinhead is not and should be mistaken for a well-rounded and interesting character in his own right: rather, he's a plot device, and without a strong set of human characters with compelling desires to call him up the whole Hellraiser structure falls apart.

It's all too easy to reduce the films to "someone fiddles with puzzle box, gets killed by Cenobites", but that would be a grave mistake; as Pinhead (Doug Bradley) says in the second film, "It is not hands that summon us: it is desire", and as slightly campy as the delivery is there (Doug Bradley not really being that great of an actor) that's really the key. Reductive world-building, wiki-constructing nerdery around the mechanism of summoning the Cenobites well and truly isn't the point - the point is that the Cenobites should show up to represent the unacceptable face of people's innermost wishes. You have that here in spades, particularly once the murders begin; Clare Higgins' performance here is magnificent at delivering a wordless implication that Julia finds some sort of sexual thrill out of killing that she had never imagined before Frank cajoles her into procuring and killng men for him, even as she is terrified by what he's become and what he does to the people she sacrifices to him.

On the one hand, it kind of makes sense that the focus of the film eventually moves away from Frank, Julia and Larry and onto Kirsty, so that she can be the hero who stumbles across the evil that's going on and puts a stop to it. At the same time, I kind of wish the end of Julia's arc in this wasn't so abrupt and truncated, though I think this is more than made up for by the second movie, in which she turns out to be even more adept at the ways of Hell than Frank was - and Frank, in his turn, cuts a more pathetic (but still threatening) figure, the pedestrian nature of his desires eclipsed by Julia's capability of ruling in Hell even as she served Frank on Earth.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II


Kicking off mere hours after the end of Hellraiser, Hellbound catches up with Kirsty as she wakes up in a mental hospital - the police evidently thinking she was in urgent need of some form of intervention after hearing her cockamamie story about undead uncles and S&M aliens massacring her family. This particular hospital, however, is operated by Dr Channard (Kenneth Cranham), who has been concealing an intense fascination with the occult, and in particular the lore surrounding the Lament Configuration and the Cenobites. Learning about the method of Frank's resurrection from Kirsty, Channard pulls some strings in order to obtain the mattress that Julia was dissected on at the end of the last movie, and sacrifices one of his own patients on it in order to call her back.

However, Dr Channard's assistant Kyle (William Hope) has become more than a little suspicious of Channard's behaviour, and finds out about this grim nonsense and decides to release Kirsty and accompany her on her investigation. Little do either suspect that Julia isn't just interested in consuming a few patients in order to recover her semblance of humanity, and Channard wants to do more than just recover someone from Hell. Manipulating Tiffany (Imogen Boorman) - a catatonic patient who engages with the outside world only for the sake of fiddling about with puzzles - into opening the Lament Configuration for them, Julia and Channard open up a gateway into Hell, and Kirsty follows in a vain hope of saving Larry.

This is a story which only really works if you are willing to allow it a little poetic licence and don't worry too much about continuity with the previous film, which ends with Kirsty and her boyfriend apparently happy to toss the Lament Configuration away. Maybe there would be legal complications for them as a result of the massacre at the house, though they hardly seemed to be about to just blather the undiluted truth to the police or otherwise lose their composure. In addition, particularly towards the end, the film becomes more of a wild progression of incidents and images and plot points without necessarily working too hard on the connecting tissue between them.

This will likely annoy you if you want a rigorously constructed linear plot you can construct timelines and canons and wikis from but kind of works for the surreal dream approach the film is going for. The early part of the film relies a certain amount on clips and what seem to be unused scenes from the first movie, which is both a sensible way of saving money for the more special effects-heavy later segments of the film and works in keeping with its general style of presenting us with increasingly extreme and bizarre images as the film goes on. As Pinhead said first time around, "We have such sights to show you" - this time around, director Tony Randel actually takes up the challenge of showing us those sights, and amazingly manages to succeed.

The imagery of Hell-as-labyrinth (presided over by the vast form of Leviathan, Lord of the Labyrinth), tying in with Channard's rhetoric about psychology and the brain as labyrinths in themselves, is a nice reminder that everything that goes on in the Hell presented here is a reflection of the extremes of human experience. Likewise, in this film we also learn a bit about the origins of the Cenobites - evidently, they are all people who sought, were drawn into, or stumbled across the Cenobite otherworld in life, and were transformed there into its advocates and acolytes, and naturally there's a bit where Kirsty is able to defuse Pinhead's Cenobite cell by reminding them of their former existence. I was aware of this plot point before watching the film and was expecting to be annoyed by the demystification of the Cenobites, but it actually works really well here.

All this stuff speaks to a signature difference between the Hellraiser series (along with much of Clive Barker's other work) and, for instance, cosmic horror in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft or more traditional styles of supernatural horror, and that is the place of humanity. In traditional horror works human beings are important and the horrifying thing is horrible because of how it disrupts ordinary human lives. In Lovecraftian cosmic horror, human beings are utterly unimportant, and the horror is in discovering and facing up to that fact. In Hellraiser and other such works, human beings are important, but the very definition of humanity itself is broader and stranger than we know, and the horror comes when human beings end up going beyond the boundaries of accepted behaviour and undergo strange transformations as a result. It is this key idea which the lesser Hellraiser sequels forget, whilst Hellbound places this secret at the heart of its labyrinth, and it is this concept which is perhaps the series' most important contribution to horror. (We can see it, for instance, in the premises behind the tabletop RPG Kult, one of the closest things to an official Hellraiser RPG ever written.)

I was slightly concerned that the "Channard resurrects Julia and feeds people to her, just like she fed people to Frank in the first film" bit would drag on or feel too much like a retread of old material, but I thought they did shockingly well at keeping that part fresh (as well as not letting it drag out for too long). In particular, the sequence in which Julia is first resurrected is incredibly powerful, tying together suicide and rot and gore and flesh and raw lust in a deeply uncomfortable combination which will get under anyone's skin. I also think Julia cuts a more striking image than Frank when it comes to padding about in the "skinned corpse" getup they produce for her; perhaps part of it is the way she's located in Channard's clean, bright, modern home rather than a dingy attic, but she really does look deeply creepy with her skin off, and all the more so when you consider that that's how we all look underneath.

The mental hospital itself could have ended up another Hollywood cartoon, and it kind of is, but at the same time a certain amount of dream logic applies to it as well as to the Hellscape itself. Most of the floors are a comparatively clean and benign depiction of what goes on in a mental hospital (with the exception of Dr Channard's brain surgery techniques, which are - shall we say - needlessly invasive), but in the maintenance sub-basement Channard maintains a secret ward which cranks up all the hoary old tropes about spooky mental hospitals up to 11, to the point where it's clearly an unrealistic fantasy rather than a realistic depiction of what actually goes on in a psychiatric ward. (This level, in fact, seems to have been an influence both on the hospital sequence at the end of Jacob's Ladder and parts of Silent Hill.)

Now, this isn't a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination. Even if you can get past the film's full-bore exploitation of the tired old "mental hospitals are scary and people with mental illness are extra scary" canard, it's a rather inconsistent piece. The deft way the hellscape juggles in scenery from the previous film (particularly the house), as well as machinery reminiscent of the various forms of the Lament Configuration, is an interesting prelude to the way the better Silent Hill games construct their hellscapes out of imagery meaningful to the protagonists, and the surreal Labyrinth and the scenes with Leviathan are incredibly visually imaginative, but a lot of these visuals aren't given quite enough room to breathe, I suspect due to the special effects budget being badly stretched. (The very last bit of special effects we're shown in the movie is hilariously unconvincing.)

On top of that, there's spaces where the script could have done with another pass to better express the ideas it's going for. For instance, for much of the movie Julia is wearing this ancient Greek-styled dress, which (particular since she is an agent of the ruler of the Labyrinth) might be meant to make us think of her in terms of Ariadne, particularly since there's a bit at the end where Julia turns into Kirsty which I think is meant to symbolise that Kirsty, by facing both her fears and to a certain extent reaching an understanding of her desires, has managed to master the labyrinth of her own mind, just as Tiffany by solving the ultimate ur-form of the Lament Configuration has resolved her own interior dilemmas. Handled a bit more deftly, this would be a great example of something which makes no logical sense, but whose symbolism is dead on, but in practice it seems a bit random and undeveloped and could do with tuning up a little.

Still, Hellbound sets a high bar for Hellraiser sequels, and to be honest I suspect this is part of the reason why so many of the sequels have been lacklustre: once you've evoked a hell-dimension with such uncompromising visuals as presented here, you really have nowhere to go in terms of escalation. Unless, of course, you try to recreate Hell on Earth, which is what the next film tried to do...

Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth


The action this time around relocates to the USA, with Pinhead being the only returning character. (Kirsty appears on a videotape which I am fairly sure is probably unused footage from the filming of Hellraiser II.) Or rather, Pinhead is the only returning characters. (Pinhead are the only returning characters? Whatever.) You see, it turns out that Pinhead having his humanity and his identity as Captain Elliott Spencer returned to him didn't destroy him, as it appeared to do in Hellbound: instead, it separated his human self as it existed in life from the monster the Lament Configuration had made of him.

What now exists in the form of Pinhead is Spencer's rampaging Id, unbound by the laws of Hell. For the time being, he is imprisoned in a certain surreal work of art - a pillar that stands in the Pyramid Gallery in New York City, which obtained it from the archives of the Channard Institute. The pillar is purchased by J.P. Monroe (Kevin Bernhardt), the sleazeball owner of the Boiler Room nightclub - and it's not long after he installs it there that the trouble starts. When TV reporter Joanne "Joey" Summerskill (Terry Farrell) witnesses the first victim being wheeled into hospital and exploding in an obviously supernatural way, she becomes intent on uncovering the truth behind this bizarre death, and teams up with club kid Terri (Paula Marshall) in order to do so. Soon enough, Pinhead ends up enlisting J.P. to help him accomplish his ends - whilst Spencer reaches out to Joey to help her defeat Pinhead's plans…

If the last two films were a visual feast with the occasional botched dish, this time around the visuals are varying lacklustre, unimaginative, and just plain bad. In particular, the effect of Pinhead's head on the pillar animating and talking to people just doesn't quite convince, and there's several bits where the pillar ends up wobbling not like the stone it is supposed to be or the flesh it turns into, but the latex prop it quite obviously is. On top of that, the various new Cenobites who pop up in this movie seem to be costumed (and tend to act) more like cut-price Borg knockoffs than the sensuously evil creatures of the first two films - but really, this is just the beginning of the film's problems. The whole piece seems to have been knocked out in an awful hurry, with some aspects of the script or direction feeling like nobody actually sat down to think through how parts were supposed to work.

For instance, the Boiler Room as a location seems to have been implemented by somebody who has no idea what a nightclub actually looks like or what considerations go into arranging one; not only does J.P. live above it in an apartment which clearly couldn't be adequately soundproofed and should be constantly full of the sound of the club itself, not only does the club's decor and style suggest that it's probably intended as a goth or metal or fetish club (it isn't quite consistent on this point) whilst the attendees are dressed as generically mainstream as they come, but there's a swanky restaurant in the same building which, again, surely couldn't be soundproofed enough to not be filled with the thumping noise from the club but is quiet and refined anyway.

This isn't the only thing which could have done with more development. Some parts of the script (and the acting) sow hints that there's a romantic or sexual spark between Joey and Terri, but it doesn't really go anywhere - even though they clearly both slept over at Joey's apartment after she invites Terri over to discuss the case, there's a bit of later dialogue which seems to leave open the possibility that Terri slept over in Joey's spare room. It's like an earlier iteration of the script had them bang and it was decided to nix that plot point, only they half-assed the process of taking it out. (Indeed, Terri gets taken out partway through the movie and, aside from a brief appearance as a Cenobite, is more or less completely absent for the final act, as though whatever story arc was envisioned for her was savagely cut.)

With most of the cast no longer on the scene and Clive Barker settling back to an executive producer's role rather than providing any direct input on proceedings, the movie falls back heavily on Pinhead as a connecting factor to the previous movies, which ends up being an exercise in embellishing his backstory yet further. For the most part, this is the sort of boring canon-building nonsense that I was afraid it was going to be in the previous flick, demystifying the figure of Pinhead to no good purpose. That said, I quite like the idea that the human part of Pinhead was needed to enforce the rules of Hell, which further implies that Hell is a human construct - and it's neat that after they are reunited it is Pinhead who is mostly in control, not Spencer. On top of that, the sequences reusing the setting of Spencer opening the Lament Configuration as envisioned originally in Hellbound are actually pretty clever.

The thing is you probably could give Pinhead a bit more of a backstory without demystifying the character or making him lose his power as a symbol, but Hell On Earth utterly botches this by reducing Pinhead to a cackling supervillain who indulges in cheesy mocking of Christ for the sake of toying with a priest, which is far less interesting than the laconic figure he was in the previous films. Indeed, part of the big problem with the script is the extent to which it expects Doug Bradley to act, a fault the previous movies were careful to avoid.

However, the main problem with the movie isn't the canon-building (though that is a little tedious) - it's the fact that tonally it's goofy as shit. The bit where Pinhead unleashes a full-on attack on the nightclub to murder most of the residents and turn selected members of staff into a new coterie of Cenobites is perhaps the nadir of this, with a range of deaths that on the plus side are kind of imaginative but on the far more substantial minus side look incredibly silly. (The worst one is possibly the club's DJ; Pinhead telekinetically makes a bunch of CDs fly at him and embed themselves in his skull, and when the DJ-Cenobite turns up later he has the power to throw CDs at people at lethal speed.) It just looks terrible, and the sequence as a whole both illustrates how the special effects budget for this instalment was somewhat ropey and also just how massively overplayed the whole "chain shoots from out of nowhere, embeds itself in someone's skin" effect that had been the series' signature visual had become.

It doesn't stop there. A large part of the conclusion to the film consists of Joey running away from the club trying to stay ahead of Pinhead and get to her apartment where Spencer has told her he can arrange a trap for Pinhead, and she's pursued by wacky explosions and random Cenobites who make more explosions happen and kill people in ridiculous ways and make silly quips. (Her cameraman was turned into a Cenobite with a camera poking out of his eye; after he blows up a bunch of police cars, he says "That's a wrap.")

The most frustrating thing about the movie is that it isn't completely awful. There's the occasional hint of the delirious dream logic of Hellbound or the gleeful transgressiveness of the original movie; it's just that it's buried under clumsy action movie cliches and ham-fisted attempts to replicate bits of the first two movies without really understanding why they worked as well as they did in their original context. The most promising idea in here is Terri's plot arc; she mentions early on that she feels all empty inside because she never dreams, then Pinhead tempts her to join him by offering her dreams, then when she appears as a Cenobite she mentions to Joey that she's full of amazing dreams now. Somehow, they actually slipped the skeleton of a good story into this mess of a movie - it's just that they don't put much emphasis on actually telling that story - in fact, if you don't pay close attention it may completely pass you by - which is kind of a shame, since it's a much better tale than what the script actually chooses to focus on.

The Decline and Fall of Hell


With Hellraiser III as comprehensively botched as it was, the future didn't bode well for the series. Clive Barker didn't have that much more involvement in the next movie, Bloodline, which was hampered on the one hand by an overambitious plotline that tried to present both the origins of the Lament Configuration, a contemporary story, and a future tale showing the ultimate end of the Configuration and the Cenobites, and on the other hand a cheesy "Cenobites in Spaaaaaace!" gimmick.

After that, Barker's involvement in the franchise was pretty much done; the vast bulk of the subsequent sequels were churned out by Dimension Films on a straight-to-video basis. The most recent one, Revelations, is a quasi-remake of the first story (with, for the first time, a new actor as Pinhead) filmed in a hurry, prompting speculation that it might be one of those movies studios churn out solely so that they can retain the rights to a particular franchise. The four movies in between Bloodline and Revelations (namely: Inferno, Hellseeker, Deader, and Hellworld) consisted pretty much of unrelated horror spec scripts that Dimension Films bought up and then sprinkled Hellraiser motifs over in order to get a quick, cheap sequel out of it.

The tragedy of these latter movies is that there's some nice ideas in them. The original concept of Deader is quite interesting, but isn't served well by having Pinhead and the Lament Configuration randomly showing up in it; Hellseeker seems to have been adapted from a mostly stale riff on Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge, salvaged slightly by offering up a morbid vision of what Kirsty's long-term future after Hellbound might be like. The big problem is that they're all movies of two halves - the original story, and the Hellraiser bits, and in any particular movie only one of those at most is any good and the other half just takes away from it. (In other cases, as in Hellworld, both halves are utter shit.)

Arrow Films have put out The Scarlet Box, a tasty blu-ray set of the first three films along with extensive bonus material (including some bits exclusive to the package); the extra goodies just about justify the burden of throwing in the decidedly inferior Hell On Earth in the package.

Appendix: Fixing Changeling the Pinhead Way


This isn't really apropos to the review as such so much as a thought I had when discussing Dan's Changeling: the Lost review with him the other day.

If you remember that article, one of the big problems with Changeling: the Lost was the way it cast you as characters who'd been spirited off to Faerie, abused horribly, and then escaped. As well as having huge issues in the way it played around with abuse metaphors, this also has kind of a big problem: if I want to play a game about being a Faerie or a Faerie-touched thing and which is all about exploring that stuff, making me have a character backstory which is going to make me want to either run screaming from or fight Faerie stuff whenever I get a whiff of it rather sabotages that.

As Dan pointed out when we spoke about this in person, there's a certain extent to which you have to accept that The Lost is about the "Batmans" of the setting; most people who see their parents murdered in front of them do not become crime-fighters, and to a large extent they have every reason to avoid violence in future, but if you want to have a Batman story you kind of accept that Batman has an unexpected reaction to his formative experiences (and people have unexpected reactions to stuff all the time). On the other hand, arguably Batman makes sense because you have just Batman, whereas in a tabletop RPG you have to deal with an entire party of Batmans, which stretches credibility a bit more.

So, how does Hellraiser come into this? Well, it's all about a hidden realm accessible only through highly esoteric avenues, which is a place of unending, infinite torture and whose supernatural inhabitants abduct people from our world into. At exactly the same time, the story in Hellraiser (and its better sequels) wouldn't happen if people weren't deliberately seeking the Cenobite realm out, and the reason they do that is because as well as being a place of unlimited torment it's also a place of unlimited pleasure.

The big problem with the unrelenting "dark, man, dark" take on Faerie in Changeling: the Lost is that it is so unrelenting that it doesn't have anything to offer characters. If it is simultaneously the sort of hell-place the rulebook describes and the sort of place of beauty and awe and wonder and power that Faerie is described as being in other sources, that really opens the game up without necessarily sabotaging any of the key aspects of it. Suddenly, it's legitimate to play someone who deliberately sought out Faerie, and who despite getting wrecked by it kind of wants to go back; suddenly, it's viable for characters to want to explore their Faerie-touched side or to try and steal bits out of Faerie to see if they can have a taste of the good side of it without subjecting themselves to the hideous price. It's a small change, but it'd improve the core premise greatly.

For that matter, adding some Faerie-inspired whimsy to the aesthetic of Hellraiser to break up the monotonous "BDSM Borg" style the series keeps applying to the Cenobites would jazz things up appreciably.
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Comments (go to latest)
Ronan Wills at 22:11 on 2015-12-07
I was interested to read about the "infinite pleasure as well as infinite suffering" angle since (having not actually watched any of these movies) I only see them described as "BDSM demons kidnap people into an evil torture dimension and torture them forever". Do the movies actually get across that both aspects exist in the Cenobite's world at once?

Arthur B at 22:55 on 2015-12-07
Not overtly. The thing about the Cenobite realm is kind of a pig-in-a-poke; it's advertised as offering infinite pleasure as well as infinite suffering, but when you get there the emphasis is decidedly on the suffering, particularly since for most people tossing infinite suffering in with infinite pleasure kind of ruins the pleasure.

That said, at least in the first two films those who come back have clearly got something out of the experience. Both Frank and Julia re-emerge as supernatural entities in their own right - not in terms of having absolutely amazing powers as such, but the fact that they can even live without their skin or derive a sick sustenance from dead people suggests that they have capabilities extending mildly beyond the human. (Julia even more so, which makes sense when you consider she's actively on the side of Leviathan in Hellbound.) And the way they carry themselves suggests that they've come away with a hideous knowledge and a terrible power - this is most evident with Julia because we get to know her pre-Hell personality much better during the first movie, so when she escapes in the second one the difference a stay in Hell has made is easier to see. And even the third film had Terri finally being able to dream as a result of signing on with the Cenobites.

But basically, if you're the sort of person for whom infinite suffering doesn't outweigh infinite pleasure, you become either a full-blown Cenobite or some other form of servitor of Leviathan like Julia, because kind of by definition the Cenobites are people who are willing to experience both to the extent to which they don't distinguish between them.
Ichneumon at 04:36 on 2015-12-17
The thing that you always have to keep in mind with Barker is that part of the point is that transcendence is not necessarily fun and rarely pretty even when it is beautiful. The mad giant in "In the Hills, the Cities" is probably the quintessential example of this, but it's a recurring motif. In a way, I kind of see it as an extension of the awe component within Lovecraft's vision of cosmicism, but as Arthur notes, it's about the human becoming the cosmic and incomprehensible through extremes of the human experience.
Arthur B at 13:07 on 2016-01-15
Huh, interesting. Catching up on my brother's Tumblr he seems to have turned up a curious fact - namely, that the original plan for Hellraiser III was to have Julia be the big bad, a role she kind of plays in Hellbound as well, which would have been an interesting direction for it. Normal-Julia-in-Greek-dress couldn't really compete with the Cenobites in the visuals department, but skinless-Julia prowling around Channard's home in a bloodstained David Byrne suit looked amazing, and bringing back a recurring character with some actual depth would have been better than spreading Pinhead out too thin.

There's a nice little article by Peter Atkins, who wrote Hellbound and did the early script treatments for Hell On Earth (and was supposed to direct it), explaining what Julia was supposed to do in the third film and claiming that the plan was always for her to be the main villain, and the arc this unfilmed version of the third film would have provided absolutely makes sense. In the first film, she's the one who Frank cajoles into procuring victims for him, and in doing so finds that she likes murder way more than she should; in the second film, she ends up in a state much like Frank was, only she gets a better deal out of it than Frank ever did, she is responsible for completing Channard's corruption, and she's far nastier about her feeding habits than Frank ever was; in the planned third film, she would have returned to Earth not as a lone wolf but as the spearhead of an invasion. (Plus how cool would it have been to have a horror series with a female protagonist and a female antagonist over the course of the trilogy?)

Unfortunately, the actress who played Julia refused to come back, so that was that. The essay doesn't explain exactly why they didn't just use the skinless version of her - after all, skinless-Julia was apparently played by someone else in Hellbound, and they could have just apply effects to her voice to suggest that she has attained a new level of supernatural power and to cover for the fact that it's a different person doing the dubbing. Oh well.
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