(Originally posted at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat by Sean T. Collins.)
The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 6
8. Hellraiser, dir. Clive Barker
Like Eyes Wide Shut, Hellraiser is a movie about the horrors of desire. Unlike Eyes Wide Shut, it is also a movie about the desire for horror.
Clive Barker, who adapted and directed the film from his novella The Hellbound Heart, made these dovetailing preoccupations explicit throughout the script. The titular hellraiser, an amoral, hedonistic wanderer known as Frank Cotton, talks of his search for “Heaven or Hell–I didn’t care which.” The creatures he finds at the end of that search, the Cenobites, offered him not some new level of orgiastic gratification, but endless, excruciating torture. In Frank’s words, they gave him “an experience beyond limits–pleasure and pain, indivisible.” The erudite leader of the Cenobites, the memorably mutilated demon known to his fans as Pinhead, describes himself and his order as “Explorers in the further regions of experience; demons to some, angels to others.” If for some you are still not convinced of Barker’s intentions, remember that the truth comes out in jest: Barker has often jokingly described this parade of murder, monstrousness, and dimemberment as “the story of what a woman will do for a good lay.”
That woman is Julia Cotton, played to icy black-widow perfection by Clare Higgins. Married to a kind but ineffectual doof named Larry, Julia moves with her husband into the house he grew up in, abandoned since the death of his mother. There they find evidence of Larry’s ne’er-do-well brother Frank, who appears to have disappeared abruptly, (they assume) one step ahead of the law. In reality, the house is the site where Frank solved the puzzle of The Box, the means by which particularly devoted and tireless hedonists may summon the Cenobites. It was in the house that Hell claimed Frank’s life; and when a chance spilling of blood enables Frank to re-enter our world, it’s in this house that more blood must be spilled to help him escape the clutches of his tormentors forever. His assistant in this endeavor is Julia, who the night before her wedding had a torrid bout of lovemaking with Frank and essentially promised to do anything he wanted if he’d stay with her. He, of course, split, but now that he’s back, she intends to keep that promise. And that means killing.
For a first-time director, Barker’s proficiency with imagery is startling. Julia’s transformation into a cold-blooded killing machine is depicted masterfully, using harsh, sterile lighting both in the bar where she picks up her first victim and in the flourescent-lit bathroom where she washes off his blood. The scenes are especially effective through their juxtaposition with the damp viscerality of the room in which Frank, now little more than a skeleton with muscle, fat and tissue dripping off of it, devours the victims Julia slays for him. This visual interweaving of the artificial and the grotesquely natural is present on such basic levels as the Cenobite’s costumes: The crisp black leather of their cassocks and the metallic wires, blades, and pins that are their trademarks are literally woven into their seeping wounds. On every level Barker forces us to try to reconcile our warring drives–our lust for pleasure and our voyeuristic enjoyment of pain, the trappings of modernity we use to ignore our bodies and the inescapability of those bodies, our desire for happiness and our willingness to make others suffer to insure that happiness. He’s the anti-Zoroastrian, acknowledging the black and the white but forcing them not to fight but to embrace. (He seems to pun on this, even, in a scene in which Larry’s daughter Kirsty, who has discovered the nature of the relationship between her stepmother Julia and her living-dead uncle Frank, is hospitalized; as the Box is solved and the Cenobites appear, the tiles of the hospital-room wall are shown in reverse-negative–black is white, white is black.)
As Barker’s career progressed, he’d take this juxtaposition to its logical end-point and make the monsters the heroes of his work, as he did in his film Nightbreed. However, he does so not by offsetting or undercutting the monstrousness of those monsters, but by celebrating it. Yes, they’re horrific, and that’s what makes them great, and worth loving. And no, we humans who encounter them seldom escape with sanity or self intact, and in some way, isn’t it worth it? In Hellraiser, Frank and Julia are destroyed for their connivance, treachery, and hubris–these are negative qualities in Barker’s world as they are in any other. But Larry is destroyed too, seemingly for the crime of being boring. It goes deeper than that, though–he’s punished for his refusal to see, for his inability to connect with things greater, deeper, lower, higher than himself. His daughter Kirsty, however, is able to encounter the Cenobites and live to tell the tale. She sees, and instead of going mad or giving up, she accepts the reality of them and in fact bargains with them, making their rules her own. And so she survives, intact, but not unchanged.
And if that’s not an apt description of a horror devotee, then what is?