2017 marks the 30th anniversary of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987), one of the most influential horror movies of its time and, on a personal note, one of the most precious in my own life. It was Barker’s directorial debut, adapting his novella The Hellbound Heart (1986), and, as lovingly detailed on his website, the script shed its share of skins on the way to low-budget, practical effects horror classic. Hellraiser’s final form still resembles the novella very closely. (Miguel Rodriguez and I talked a lot about this in the Horrible Imaginings podcast a while back, too.) But for all its fidelity, you could scroll through the box art and poster for every Hellraiser made – and to date, there are nine, all of which I reviewed at The Lost Highway – plus the comics and Barker’s successor novel, The Scarlet Gospels (2015), and never be troubled by the sight of the most formidable villain in the original works. That’s because the spotlight obsesses on the Cenobites, those disfigured ghouls who gave Hellraiser its original, gleefully B-horror working title, Sadomasochists from Beyond the Grave. It’s fun to consider that while making the film, Barker was genuinely concerned people might think the Cenobites looked silly. They do not look silly. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to credit Barker with innovating his own undead aesthetic with the Cenobites, a legacy that directly informed the design of damned creatures from Event Horizon (1997) to the Silent Hill series (1999). And while the Cenobites are more like a force of nature in the first film, further development lends them, particularly their leader, the Hell Priest,* the depth of a tragic backstory and a strangely seductive ethos. It’s a lure sufficient to eventually ensnare Hellraiser’s heroine Kirsty in the comics – which had Barker’s blessing, unlike the majority of the film series – and his particular kink notwithstanding, Pinhead isn’t too dissimilar from Barker’s other monstrous romantic, the Candyman.
But Hellraiser is really all about Julia. No, not even one-man pornhub Frank Cotton, who gives Julia her impetus to start killing and invokes the Cenobites in the first stupid place, which means he spends almost the entire film aspiring toward coagulation. This story is Julia Cotton’s – although is that even her name? It’s never explicitly said. We don’t see a piece of mail in passing that confirms she took her husband’s name, and Clive ever refers to her in The Hellbound Heart with the mononym, making her more mythic than familiar, before going on about how cold, dissatisfied, and beautiful she is. Maybe as loveless as her marriage to her husband is, she’d take his name just to be furtively closer to brother Frank.
Because that is her motivation: love. Or, failing that, an obsessive lust that disguises itself as same. The way the story unfolds, profligate Frank is bored with Skinimax-grade pleasures, and his desires are not such that could be quenched by volunteering at a soup kitchen or learning a new language on Duolingo. This leads him to track down a puzzle box, the successful solution of which will open a gate to the unspeakable delights of the Cenobites. Quelle surprise when those delights turn out to be more unspeakable than he bargained for and he’s literally ripped to pieces and taken to hell.** As many a horror story does, the action picks up with innocent people moving house, as Larry (Rory in the book; I’m stealing this review’s decision to refer to him as “Rarry.”) and Julia take ownership of property willed to Rarry. As it happens, no-good brother Frank squatted there when he was taken by the sadomasochists from hell. This is also when we find out Julia had a brief affair with Frank before the wedding, and she still longs for him.
That was how she remembered it – that he’d asked to see the dress – and she’d put the veil on, laughing to think of herself in white, and then he’d been at her shoulder, lifting the veil, and she’d laughed on, laughed and laughed, as though to test the strength of his purpose. He had not been cooled by her mirth however; nor had he wasted time with the niceties of a seduction. The smooth exterior gave way to cruder stuff almost immediately. Their coupling had had in every regard but the matter of her acquiescence, all the aggression and the joylessness of rape.
Memory sweetened events of course, and in the four years (and five months) since that afternoon, she’d replayed the scene often. Now, in remembering it, the bruises were trophies of their passion, her tears proof positive of her feelings for him.
Frank may have opened a door to the unspeakable by solving the puzzle box,*** but he unwittingly woke something as fatal the night he seduced Julia. We’re never given a reason for why Julia kept up the pretense of her rocky marriage to Rarry, but it’s clear she never got over Frank. The detritus of his meager, profane belongings in the house are holy relics to love-starved Julia, and scenes of her breathlessly flipping through Frank’s dirty pictures for a useful memento is one of the many occasions Clare Higgins’ performance rings beautifully true in its pathos. Little does Julia realize she’s about to get her dearest wish, but it will be as though she made it on a monkey’s paw.
When Rarry suffers a minor accident and spills some of his blood on the spot where Frank was killed, the sacrifice partially resurrects Frank. Now a weak, skinless abomination, Frank nevertheless successfully demands Julia lure men to the house to murder, in the hopes of fully reconstituting her lover. In the meantime, Kirsty – a dreamy, lovelorn friend of Rory’s in the book, but Larry’s daughter in the movie – senses something is amiss with Julia. Finding and solving the puzzle box by accident, Kirsty is set upon by the Cenobites, and it becomes her task to reunite Frank with his captors lest Rarry be killed and Kirsty dragged to hell without a safe word.
No matter Kirsty’s backstory, the antagonism between the two women over Rarry is fundamental to the proceedings, and Kirsty’s self-sacrificing virtue in love throws into stark relief the cannibalizing love at the bottom of Julia’s villainy. Both women are brave. Both women are resilient. Both women are failing the Bechdel Test. But Kirsty facing the denizens of hell and a wicked stepmother/rival is bravery and forcefulness as a model of virtue, whereas planting hammers in the skulls of lonely men definitely isn’t. And speaking of virtue and contrasts, Kirsty Cotton gets the medal for my favorite Final Girl of the 80s, largely due to the fierceness Ashley Laurence brings to the role. I often like to say that Kirsty and Pinhead are my OTP, owing to the undercurrent in the film of Kirsty being compelled by the forbidden realms that killed her uncle, symbolic dreams and everything. But it is also worth noting that Clive Barker takes a decidedly sex positive view of his Final Girl in Hellraiser, which is even more important when you consider the nature of Julia’s corruption. Kirsty is an adult who gets tipsy at her father’s party and ends up going home with one of his friends. Neither of these things diminishes her moral authority or her ability to call bullshit on Julia and kick ass all the way to the end.
Speaking of fierce, Clare Higgins as Julia is purely amazing, absolutely one of the all-time great performances in horror cinema. It’s a bit of an ask to portray someone so besotted with a one-night stand that they will kill for it and have them remain at all sympathetic. At its most innocuous, their affair was no less than a betrayal of her fiancé, with his brother on her wedding dress, with no relationship to speak of behind it. (Imagine wearing that for the wedding. Imagine fetishizing wearing that, as I’m certain Julia did. You know she didn’t get it cleaned.) As dramatized in the movie, Julia has only just met Frank when he appears rain-soaked in her doorway, a lost soul from a porno premise. Yet she’s credible not just in those scenes, where your sympathy naturally allies with her, the one being cruelly used, shocked by her own ardor, quietly absorbing rejection, but throughout her transformation from unwitting submissive to unrepentant murderess. My favorite part of Higgins’ performance is probably when Julia first encounters resurrected Frank. There’s not a lot of dialogue here and no omniscient narrator to peek poetically into Julia’s skull. It’s all down to Higgins to show, not tell Julia is a human being confronted with a flayed, impossible creature she finds terrifying and repugnant, and yet she believably resists pealing screams all the way downstairs into the safe arms of her unloved husband. She leaves the room and nearly runs into Kirsty on the stairs. Kirsty is a little drunk and Julia at this point is teetering on a razor’s edge. You sense how easily Julia could be fatal to Kirsty in that moment, but also there’s a window for Julia to refuse Frank. She’s still wavering, until the realization dawns in Julia that she’s more concerned with protecting the thing in the damp room than escaping it.
And then the murders begin. The Cenobites may be on the poster, but Julia gets her hands a whole lot bloodier than they do, and her killings, joined with Kirsty’s race to stop her before she gets to Frank’s brother, furnish the real meat of the movie. Julia is not a particularly gifted murderess. She is hesitant and squeamish and does not have the foresight to wear old clothes or a murder suit ala Hannibal Lecter. Who knows what would have happened if the first victim in the movie hadn’t been aggressive enough to scare her? Clare Higgins again deserves all the awards for her quavering, flinching, and teeth-baring as Julia flashes on again and off again as predator and prey, always in danger, always dangerous. Soon enough, Julia’s killing prowess is the stuff of montage, and that arrows to a last, soul-destroying demand from her undead lover: it’s time to strip his brother’s skin and make it his own.
Julia is eventually killed in the film — by traitorous Frank, of course, though Kirsty will find her body clutching the box and pierced with tokens of the Cenobites’ attentions – but she does show up again in Hellbound: Hellraiser II. The sequel attempts to embiggen the mythology at the heart of Hellraiser, as Kirsty finds herself institutionalized, fruitlessly raving about the dangers of the box and the mattress that Julia died on. Much as the floor where Frank died was his portal back from hell, the mattress becomes the way back for Julia, and it just so happens that Kirsty has landed in an institute with a sinister head psychiatrist, Dr. Channard, who has been looking his entire life for just such a gateway. As the first film dwells on Frank’s resurrection, Hellbound gets going with Julia’s, although it also truncates this section in favor of expanding the mythos with Kirsty and the always game Cenobites. In this film, after all, Julia’s journey into villainy is already accomplished, and Dr. Channard crosses over into murdering for her with a surgeon’s dispassion and a ready supply of sacrificial mental patients. Unfortunately, Julia isn’t quite allowed to become the Big Bad. She is impressively wicked and regal in her resurrection, but functionally, she ends up more like a concierge in hell’s service, and it’s a little disappointing. Her seamless seduction and betrayal of Channard does show exactly how far she’s come from that first frantic, shaky murder, but here her evil is absolute, and absolute is usually less interesting. At least she gets to revenge herself on Frank pretty good.
As is so often the case, what makes Julia so brilliant as a villain speaks to the humanity we share with her and how far into her descent into villainy we can still recognize ourselves. The movie may be called Hellraiser, which seems to point to portal-popping Frank or Pinhead, but The Hellbound Heart might equally describe Frank and Julia — even Kirsty and Rory in the most general terms, as all our principals live in the teeth of his or her own ill-starred passion. Still, it’s Julia who willingly assumes the mantle of monster for love’s sake. Frank isn’t a monster so much as a hedonist who follows his personal Rawhead Rex into transfiguration, and Kirsty and Rarry are the victims that must always follow when hell is other people. Frank’s story mirrors that of the Cenobites, but he’s not a Cenobite when we rejoin him in Hellraiser or find him again in Hellbound; he’s just their plaything because that’s as far as mere appetite gets you. Disappointing as it may be Julia’s not the Queen of Hell in Hellbound, she’s nobody’s plaything. She’s not trying to escape hell at all like Frank was; she’s actually hell’s recruiter. So in the end, Julia consciously chooses monstrousness because it’s better to be loved in hell than never to have loved at all.
* Fine, fine, Pinhead, if you insist.
**Hell here meaning not an explicit Judeo-Christian model of hell as such, but more of a blue-filtered S&M Club-Labyrinth-Netherworld with Cenobites. Lucifer does become a significant part of the story much, much later when Clive Barker takes up the story again in 2015’s The Scarlet Gospels.
***The careful, circular caresses with which one manipulates the box’s intricately carved faces do remind me of something else.
If you’re going to watch one of the terrible Hellraiser ashcan sequels, Angela recommends Hellworld because Lance Henriksen, but really, don’t watch any of the terrible Hellraiser ashcan sequels.