Film * Clive Barker * Pinhead Needs a Safe Word * 1987
The first time I watched Hellraiser I fell asleep. This might seem weird considering the theme of the movie is being gross and showing the viewer just all kinds of horrific shit, but maybe I was just tired. Then, some years ago, I watched it again with my wife. We stayed awake, but the consensus was the film was dull. Again, kind of odd for a film that luxuriates in bloody giblets and gnarly bugs, but at least it indicated that I’m not crazy. Hellraiser has some pacing issues, and I’m not really sure what could have been done to prevent it. I will admit some of this is on me: I like a particular kind of horror. The whole body-horror thing does very little for me, and this one is full of it, in glorious 80’s practical effects, no less. I prefer the creeping dread story. The original Blair Witch or The Ring are what I’m talking about when it comes to the slow-burn, atmospheric brand of spooky I’m into. What’s odd is that Hellraiser is paced like one of these kind of films, it just shows everything right away so that there’s not real payoff at the end.
The movie is about weird occult shit that only kind of makes sense. There’s a mysterious little box that this dude named Frank obtained from the Mystical Orient. If you pet this box just so, it opens up. When it opens up, these horrible monsters appear and tear your body apart with chains and hooks on the set from Nine Inch Nails’ “Wish” video. That’s the introduction to the film. There’s these weird twirling posts that you see in gift shops, except instead of magnets and keychains there’s little bloody bits of meat and like, an ear nailed to it. And, I don’t know, there comes a point where the gore and grimdark just become a little silly. Hellraiser pushes up against this right away but then it backs off just as quickly. After our introduction to Pinhead’s hell-dimension, the story shifts into a kind of mashup of a haunted house and that Simpsons Treehouse of Horror bit where Bart has an evil twin living in the attic.
From what I can gather, the hell dimension is parallel to our own, and the little box is a conduit between our reality and that of the cenobites (which is what the demons call themselves). So Frank, who has clearly been torn asunder in a different plane of reality, is still in the attic of this house, living in the eternal pain of one who exists as a variety of chunks. The story comes in when we discover that Frank has a brother, Larry, who is a dweeb. Larry has a wife, Julia, who is something of an ice queen, and a delightful grown daughter who is not a fan of the stepmother. The daughter, Kirsty, is the protagonist, because this is still a 1980’s horror movie. So there’s this whole dysfunctional family dynamic, but we quickly learn that Julia and Frank are having a big old affair and that Frank is a creep. I mean, he specifically sought out the magic box to enjoy the pain dimension because basic-ass rough sex wasn’t enough for him.
Early on, while Larry and Julia are moving into the creep house, Larry injures his hand. He’s just gushing blood everywhere, and because he’s kind of a weenie he runs up to the creepy, dilapidated room where Julia is reminiscing about boning Frank. His blood soaks into the floor and uh-oh, that’s just what the collection of giblets that is Frank needs to regain his body. Except he needs more, and more, and more and that turns into the actual plot of the movie. Julia become Frank’s blood-gopher, and Hellraiser turns into a slow examination of the power dynamic between these two characters and I guess sadomasochism in general. But then there’s gross-out moments with bugs and a rat (seriously, fuck that rat scene, also that screaming nightmare when the weird hobo eats handfuls of crickets for no goddamn reason) and some other awful stuff and then the demons show up again.
I guess I’ve never been a huge Clive Barker fan, and after watching this I think I know why. Between the three or four novels of his I read in my late teens/early twenties and Hellraiser, it seems like Barker feels compelled to show it. Usually that’s a good thing, something aspiring fiction writers learn right away; show don’t tell you amateur hour hack (I may have attended some aggressive writer workshops). Of Barker’s novels, I read Imajica and The Great and Secret Show, and while I remember enjoying them at the time, in retrospect there is just too much there. Too many words, my bro, too many words. The details are fuzzy, but I remember some scenes in Imajica that even as a gross nineteen year old boy I thought were gratuitous. Like the creature the main character bangs with the magic genitalia and it’s suddenly two pages of weird urban fantasy porn. I’m not here to kink-shame anyone, but maybe dial it back a bit. Hellraiser has a similar issue – I don’t need to see five minutes of your gross goo-monster slithering around in stop-motion. These things are scarier specifically when I don’t see them constantly, especially when it’s thirty years later and the demons just look like they’re from a S&M Dark Crystal spin-off. That said, the Blues Brothers cenobite is the very best thing, I’m not gonna lie.
The thing I like about Hellraiser is also something shared by those Clive Barker novels I’m probably never going to re-read, and that’s the idea of sub-realities mirroring our own. Obviously Barker doesn’t have the patent to dark urban fantasy, he just happens to be pretty good at it. The cenobites might be a little one-note – yeah, I get it, you like pain – but the idea that they exist in a world just beneath ours is cool. There’s a slight amount of comfort to be had in the notion of a place worse than ours, I guess. The world of 1987 wasn’t great, despite what the nostalgic fuzzies might tell you, and the media of the time was one way to gauge this sentiment. On the one hand, you had the pure treacle of the eighties sitcom. Full House certainly isn’t going to let you remember that global-scale thermonuclear war between two superpowers is constantly hanging over your head. On the other hand you have something like Hellraiser, which is the fantasy that there are much, much worse things than American life in the eighties. That might not be terribly comforting, but, I mean, it can’t be worse than living in the alternate Full House universe. No one deserves that, not even Pinhead.