A Review of "The Hellbound Heart" (1985) and 'Hellraiser" (1987) by Clive Barker
My favorite mental escape has been, as of late, coming home after the gym, and popping on my audio book of The Hellbound Heart, the quintessential horror novella of the mid-1980's that inspired the long-running Hellraiser horror franchise, making macabre wunderkind Clive Barker into an international celebrity and a bestselling author, as well as a much-applauded director. (He's also a graphic artist, and began his career as such.)
To say that Hellraiser, The Hellbound Heart, and the early work of Clive Barker exemplifies the 1980s for THIS author, is to put it mildly; he first saw Hellraiser at the tender age of eleven, although it was merely the trailer, and the infamous title left his father shaking his conservative Christian head in disgust. A movie with that title? What must society be coming to?
Was the world, after all, going to....Hell?
My father must have thought so. I was intrigues at the evil aura the film seemed to exude. (This is all of one piece with memories of riding my bike down to the vacant movie theater in Killeen, Texas, walking up the steps to look at a poster for Witchboard prominently displayed outside. But maybe I am letting the years bleed together haphazardly in my mind.)
At any rate, Hellraiser made a massive impression on me, even as simply a television commercial movie ad. I remember being at a run-down grocery store (now turned rehab facility) in 1988 or 89, and picking up a Fangoria-type magazine of pull-out horror posters, posters for old cult classics as well as blockbusters. Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Dawn of the Dead, The Exorcist...and, of course, Hellraiser. Which I still had yet to see. (Stephen King's famous tagline, "I have seen the future of horror, and its name is...Clive Barker!" was embedded in my brain at this point. I figured if Stephen FUCKING King said you were the future of horror, well, then you really had to be something else entirely.)
When I finally saw Hellraiser, on VHS cassette, in the early, early 1990s, it very quickly became on of my favorite films, a "dark domestic drama with demons" (to quote Clive Barker); a film that could easily evoke a sense of an alien or occult "other." Surrealistically, it conjoined and mashed together two worlds: that of the affluent yet somehow dour and stark House of Cotton, and the world of the grotesque and utterly alien Cenobites, lead by Pinhead, who has a pin pounded into a grid on his face. Other Cenobites are skinned heads with chattering teeth, a morbidly obese walking cadaver in dark shades, and a bluish woman with a high, eerie voice and hooks in her hands. They are bald, curiously androgynous, mutilated specters in black leather strap costumes, rattling chains and torture devices and eschewing the usual monster garb of conventional horror films for a sartorial presentation straight from a fetish catalog.
Beneath the Skin
Hellraiser (and the novel that inspired it), are both a kind of Greek family tragedy--indeed, Barker is ALSO a playwright, as well as a novelist, director and visual artist (how does this genius find the time for it all? one wonders), and the plot of Hellraiser and The Hellbound Heart has the distinct feel of a Grand Guignol drama from ages past, a domestic noir wherein the unsuspecting patriarch--called in film and book variously as Larry and Rory--is tricked by a brutal Clytemnestra and her demon lover into becoming the victim of their nefarious plot; and so falls the House of Cotton. But here, the Furies are replaced with the macabre and compelling (and visually stunning) priests of the "Order of the Gash": Cenobites.
Rory/Larry (played in the film Hellraiser by Andrew Robinson) and Julia, a mismatched couple, although quintessentially affluent 1980s yuppies, move into a house Rory has inherited on 55 Ludivico St. , in a city we presume, in the film version at any rate, is somewhere in Britain. In the novel, it is not so plainly determined.
The house, which belonged to Rory's late grandmother, is a massive, Victorian two-story affair, and was lately occupied by Rory's brother Frank, the "black sheep": a sexual hedonist chasing after gnosis between the legs of various loose women. A poor man's Aleister Crowley, he further indulges vice and crime, drugs and drink, in a suicidal life of excess that sees him galavanting around various foreign ports in search of adventure. (Or, his own self-destructive ending, one supposes.)
It is in one such place that he meets Kircher, who sells him the "Lament Configuration": alternately, known as "Lemarchand's Box", a legendary and much-feared Chinese puzzle box that, when opened, allows the user to slip the reigns of this present world, and, presumably, into an alternate dimension of pleasure and torment the likes of which few human beings could conceive.
Frank, in the opening scene of Heart, has prepared an altar for the Cenobites, as if he were a priest in a religion that doesn't exist: bon bons and a jug of his own urine (in case they require some "spontaneous act of self-defilement") seem to be the least odd items of the assortment.
Finally, after manipulating the box, he summons the demons from their place beyond trans-dimensional space. Hideous and kinky, with their clothing "sewn through their skin" in spots, they are voiced with a kind of terrifying yet weirdly touching robot simplicity by the mellow, weirdly-soothing English tones of Barker, on the audio book version.
“Do you understand?” the figure beside the first speaker demanded. Its voice, unlike that of its companion, was light and breathy—the voice of an excited girl. Every inch of its head had been tattooed with an intricate grid, and at every intersection of horizontal and vertical axes a jeweled pin driven through to the bone. Its tongue was similarly decorated. “Do you even know who we are?” it asked.”
― Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart
Frank is given a sensory explosion that drives him nearly mad, before disappearing back into Hell with a Cenobite described as having a mutilated vagina and sitting on a stack of severed heads. Flash forward to Rory and the frigid and unhappy Julia, (played as a neurotic psychopath in the film of Hellraiser by the extraordinary Clare Higgins) moving into the Ludivico House--Julia has previously had one encounter or affair there with Brother Frank (although when this happened seems obscure), and Frank's semen fell onto the floor of a dark, cavernous and vacant upstairs room, staining the moldering floor boards, and setting the scene for later.
Rory has a friend in Kirsty, who is presented, in the film version, as his daughter (portrayed famously in the film by the beautiful Ashley Laurence), but the nature of their relationship in the novel is ambiguous. Described as someone who is forlorn, who decided early on that "life was not fair," she is a gloomy, seemingly virginal, long-suffering angel, who truly loves Rory. By contrast, Julia is a bitch-goddess study in beauty and perfection. She hates Kirsty passionately, but she seems indifferent as to whether or not she and Rory are having an affair.
The vast, empty room wherein Frank is kidnapped by the Cenobites is a dark, moldy "thin space" in the veil between this world and the next--here, Julia gets a glimpse of a macabre denizen of the extra-dimensional realm behind the brickwork facade. When Rory manages to cut his hand and bleed on the spot that brother Frank has ejaculated on, it creates a portal wherein Frank can escape the Cenobites. Convincing Julia to help him, then, is child's play.
Frank is a skinned and desiccated corpse-like husk. Julia understands that she must lure men, under the pretext of casual sex, to the vacant, dead, womb-like upper room, and then kill them, allowing Frank to vampirize their blood and flesh. Eventually, Kirsty comes 'round, convinced Julia is having an affair, and wanting to catch her in the act. This leads to a confrontation with Frank.
Kirsty casts the Lemarchand Box out the window, and running out, wanders until hospitalized. Taking up the box again in her hospital room, Kirsty manages to call forth the Cenobites, who want to hear Frank "confess himself "; and who, if Kirsty can find him alive, maybe, just maybe, won't "tear her soul apart."
The rest is infamous horror story legendary. To spoil it all, Kirsty returns with the box. Frank, dressed in Rory's skin, attempts to kill Kirsty, and instead, manages to kill Julia. In the film of Hellraiser, Julia dies, bleeding to death on a mattress, thus setting the stage for her return in the sequel. In the book, she is beheaded, while dressed in her wedding gown, and the "Engineer" appears beneath the bridal veil, mimicking her voice horrifically.
Upstairs, Kirsty has collapsed over the body of Rory, with Frank (the skin of Rory described hideously as "hanging from his chin") nearly about to pounce upon her with a knife. Then, just as we are certain Kirsty will succumb to the murderous Frank, the Cenobites come forth from their extra-dimensional Hell realm, and with the legendary "Hooks of Hell" that come swooping in from floor and ceiling, capture Frank like some sort of pinned animal or insect, stretching his face out grotesquely, before, quite literally, pulling him to pieces.
(In the film Hellraiser, this is the classic scene where actor Andrew Robinson's face is literally stretched into a sort-of carnivalesque nightmare. He grotesquely licks his glistening lips, before croaking, half-bemusedly, "Jesus...wept!" Then, pulled apart by the hooks, he explodes.
Kirsty flees the house, the Bells of Hell (which are heard whenever the Cenobites make an entrance, tolling long and slow and deep) resounding in the walls of Ludovico, along with the howling of wolves, and is only stopped by the headless corpse of Julia, dressed, as stated before, as if for her wedding.
The same Engineer, who has a head described as a "jet of flame" (shades of the Biblical story of the Pentecost), jostles Kirsty as she flees, passing back to her the box, in which she can see the screaming visages of Frank and Julia.
The film, though, ends differently. Kirsty, and her boyfriend Steve (the late actor Robert Hines) flee the house with the Cenobites, and the huge, hideous creature in the trans-dimensional tunnel, a creature that that seems to be on wheels, hot on their heels. The house is collapsing around them, but they make it out alive.
Going to what appears to be a trash dump or city landfill, they attempt to burn the box. The Engineer, (here depicted as a homeless, mentally-ill vagrant who has, earlier, eaten a disgusting lunch of grasshoppers at the pet store Kirsty works at), reaches into the flame and retrieves the box, transforming into a hideous skeleton-dragon creature, and taking flight. The film closes with the audience seeing the cinematic point-of-view from this creature's perspective.
Hellraiser (1987) Trailer
As far as what the subtext of Hellbound Heart or Hellraiser means, it seems to be a product of its era: the bloated, materialistic 1980s, an era when greed and affluence were praised as desirable ends, when human bodies were commodified, divided into sets of "great arms, great abs, great ass"; when narcissism and chic, fashionable glamour were accorded a great deal of thought and value. It was an era of the shopping mall, of big hair and heavy metal heart throbs, pop music princesses and perfect romantic dreams, all pushed incessantly by a consumerist culture that, even as it was pre-internet, was setting the stage for the world in which we would find ourselves, decades later.
But it is, much as the room in which Frank makes his earthly reappearance, a "cold, dead womb"; it is an opulent facade of paradise, hiding something rotten at its core. Reagan, Iran-Contra, the teeming, violent, blood-soaked ghettos, the dark, troubling, domestic "demons" of our lives, all of which belied the cancer rapidly metastasizing at the heart of the American Ideal. Gangster rap, just starting to make its appearance, and the popularity of hardcore punk and thrash metal, were all strong societal indicators of where the heads of many young people, the "X Generation," were, really, going.
True crime exploded in popularity; sensational tabloid accounts of serial killers, rape, alleged Satanic ritual child abuse, etc. The Geraldo Riveras and Jerry Springers of the Media landscape stepped into the cultural void, to fill the chasm between the puff-poo entertainment of saccharine, forgettable situation comedies, and what we REALLY WANTED: the dark desires of minds whose subconscious musings were informed by a knowledge that the Soviet monster across the sea was full-armed and ready to engage in thermonuclear apocalypse. And even a few motivational seminars wouldn't stave off Armageddon forever.
Of course, the S/M imagery of Hellraiser, the fact of Barker as a gay man at a time when homophobia still forbid an easy exit from a personal closet, adds another interesting subtext, in the face of what, at the time, was the burgeoning, ill-understood AIDS epidemic. The Cenobites are there, after all, to provide a "pleasure" which is also pain; living Hell, or death. To offer the fantasy of an escape to ecstacies undreamed of, and then, to punish those unwise enough to open the Box, to take the bait. (Note: The Box is a symbolic stand-in for the empty, sterile "womb" that offers no rebirth.)
This may not have been the intended metaphor proffered by Barker; most assuredly, it was not, in fact. But it lies there, dormant, open to interpretation, none the less.
“Everything tires with time, and starts to seek some opposition, to save it from itself.”
― Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart
And that, Dear Readers, is a fitting enough quote to sum up both the era of Hellraiser and The Hellbound Heart, and the corrosive social cancer it spawned, the Hooks in our own, contemporary flesh, tormenting us, giving us pain when it promised pleasure; punishing us for our belief in the illusion of ecstacy.
For us, Hell's Bells ring on and on...