ANDY STEWART explains why he holds such a big space in his heart (and on his arm) for Clive Barker’s Hellraiser
I HAVE a vague memory from the late eighties or early nineties of a Scottish comedy sketch show called Naked Video, and in particular, of a sketch wherein Pinhead, the legendary villain of the Hellraiser movies, is parodied as he ruins a football match with a poorly thought-out header.
Even then, only a couple of years after the film’s release, the character of Pinhead had already found his way into the pantheon of pop culture icons.
His instantly recognisable image is one which I am proud to have tattooed on my left shoulder.
Now as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release of Hellraiser, Clive Barker’s film has become one of the most beloved horror films of all time and, in my opinion, one of the finest British horror films ever made.
I know a lot of people who don’t “get” Barker’s work, be it written or on film, and many more who simply don’t like what he does.
Personally, I have always enjoyed his work.
So what is it about Hellraiser that makes it so special to me?
What is so special about Pinhead that I would tattoo him, forever, on my body.
Well, like many people my age, I first saw Hellraiser when I was about 11 or 12 years old.
I went to a friend’s house and watched it on video, a video which I duly borrowed and watched repeatedly for about a week, and although at the time, I didn’t fully understand the more sexual aspects and intricacies of the story, I was absolutely enthralled.
Hellraiser is, at its core, the story of a dysfunctional family.
Frank and Larry Cotton are estranged brothers. Larry loves his wife Julia, though she, very clearly, despises him. Julia loves Frank, with whom she enjoyed a steamy romp atop her wedding dress before marrying Larry. Larry’s daughter Kirsty, loves her dear old Dad but isn’t too keen on either Julia or Uncle Frank. See? Hardly the most cohesive of family units.
Hellraiser grabbed my attention from the first moments in which Frank makes a shady back alley deal for a mysteriously patterned cube. We then see him rolling the cube around his hands and it becomes clear that this simple cube is, in fact, an intricately carved puzzle box, which upon solving, fires hooks into the flesh of Frank.
We are then privy to our first glimpse of the, now legendary, “Lead Cenobite” as he sorts through the scattered remains of Frank’s Earthly body, before closing the box and sucking any evidence of Frank’s adventures inside.
An impressive start, indeed. However, that is only the first of Hellraiser’s many impressive moments.
Frank’s “rebirth” is, to this day, one of my favourite scenes in horror.
Watching him grow from a puddle of viscous gloop into a mewling skeleton, desperate for life, is a joy to behold and the scene still holds up well today, a testament to Bob Keen’s designs and the work of Image Animation.
OK. In fairness, the same cannot be said for all of the effects in the film, some of which, particularly the mechanical effects such as the “Hell-beast”, with its all-too-visible wheel and the transformation which sees the locust-munching hobo turn into a gigantic, and unconvincing skele-dragon, look frankly awful.
The cast do a fine job of things. Andrew Robinson’s portrayal of sappy Larry is great.
Larry goes about his business blissfully unaware that his wife hates him and is nurturing his deceased, slacker brother back to life in the attic with murderous sacrifices. It’s madness. Robinson also shows that he has the chops to play “bad” as he turns nasty in the third act.
Clare Higgins brings new meaning to the phrase “ice queen” with her performance as Julia. Julia is a nasty piece of work who desperately seeks some excitement from her hum-drum life with Larry and, powered by sheer lust, she agrees to help Frank become whole again. Higgins is fantastic throughout and her returning role in Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, is equally chilling.
Ashley Laurence puts in a gutsy performance as heroine Kirsty, who runs the full gamut of emotions from terror to angry resilience as she does battle with her Uncle and, later, the Cenobites.
Ah. The Cenobites. Pain loving denizens of Hell. Clad in S&M-esque leather attire and hideously disfigured from the numerous wounds and modifications that cover their bodies. They are the collectors of souls who strike up a deal with Kirsty to recover the lost soul of Frank in exchange for her life.
Though the Hellraiser series contains various different Cenobites, it’s the group seen here that are the original, and frankly, best of the bunch. Chatterer, his exposed teeth clicking between his twisted face. Butterball, corpulent and eyeless. The Female Cenobite, her voice rasping from her exposed larynx and, of course, the Lead Cenobite, or as he would later be known, Pinhead, with his gridded head, each junction upon which containing a shiny pin hammered into his skull.
Pinhead, or Elliot Spencer, as he was once known, is a magnificent creation for many reasons, though his motives and history in the first film remain a mystery. He’s actually not all that bad. There is still a remnant of humanity left to him and a respect for life.
Aside from that, he has a voice, and unlike Freddy Krueger, whose verbal exchanges don’t tend to extend much further than one-liners, Pinhead is suave, calm, well-spoken and erudite. A gentleman monster, you might say.
All of which is down to Doug Bradley’s performance. Bradley has taken the character and honed it perfectly to suit himself. Pinhead IS Doug Bradley and no-one else will play the character the way he has and despite the decreasing quality of the films in the franchise, Bradley dutifully stepped into the Pinhead make-up no less than 8 times, until being replaced in the truly dreadful Hellraiser: Revelations.
Ultimately, Pinhead is a welcome break from the Jasons, Freddys and Michael Myers of this world.
Hellraiser came into my life at a time in my life when I was only just finding horror. It was so different, so bizarre and, at the time, one of the most extreme films I had ever seen. Maligned by many and loved by many more, Hellraiser is still a wonderful and, at times, bemusing, film that has largely withstood the test of time.
It is one of my favourite films, a Halloween must and one of the films that inspired me to make films of my own. For that reason alone, I will be forever indebted to Clive Barker.
Hence the tattoo.