My Life In Horror
Every month, I will write about a film, album, book or event that I consider horror, and that had a warping effect on my young mind. You will discover my definition of what constitutes horror is both eclectic and elastic. Don’t write in. Also, of necessity, much of this will be bullshit – as in, my best recollection of things that happened anywhere from 15 – 25 years ago. Sometimes I will revisit the source material contemporaneously, further compounding the potential bullshit factor. Finally, intimate familiarity with the text is assumed – to put it bluntly, here be gigantic and comprehensive spoilers. Though in the vast majority of cases, I’d recommend doing yourself a favour and checking out the original material first anyway.
This is not history. This is not journalism. This is not a review.
This is my life in horror.
WE HAVE SUCH SIGHTS TO SHOW YOU
Unpacking this one is tough, with any moral certainty. Here’s the problem – I watched Hellraiser II first. I had not, prior to that point, seen a huge amount of movie horror of the 18 variety, and as you might expect... it had an impact. Not to take away from Hellraiser, which is by any measure an impressive achievement in its own right, but I saw it later, and after II, and that had an effect. And I think one symptom of that is this inability to clearly state the time and location I first saw Hellraiser.
I’m going to have to guess.
And my guess is my 15th birthday.
That year, we have a VCR. That year, I decided what I wanted was for ‘Bev’ to stay over and sleep on the sofa so we could stay up all night watching horror movies. Mum, perhaps infected by Video Van Man disease, agreed, and allowed us to pick any movies we wanted from the ‘local’ store (actually 6 miles away, but that’s rural living for you). I seem to remember I optimistically rented 8 movies, figuring at 2 hours each that would get us to dawn – maths clearly even then not a strong suit. Surprisingly enough, we didn’t manage to watch all the films. To the best of my recollection, the films we rented were:
Return Of The Living Dead
Evil Dead 2
Army Of Darkness – Medieval Dead
And some other film that was 15 certificate – possibly The Lost Boys, though I can’t say for sure.
And my memory is that we’d saved the Hellraiser films for the finale. So it will have been with bleary eyes and a numb mind that I first encountered the full story of Frank Cotton and Julia, poor Larry and the spectacularly unfortunate Kirsty.
It was a riveting experience.
The opening sequence grabbed me by the scruff of the neck – there’s a lovely moment as Frank gets up to leave, having bought the puzzle box, and he pauses, like he’s expecting the salesman to make some smart-assed remark, then he goes.... then the salesman does, indeed, make a smart-assed remark. It’s I think an intentionally funny moment, which makes the opening of the box moments later, with all the hooks-into-bleeding-flesh gory detail, all the more shocking.
There’s an incredible elegance to the story-telling too – for all that we get Franks voice-over explanation later for the people who came in five minutes late, in the opening sequence it’s all told with I think no words at all. The box opens, out come the meat-hooks, Frank is reduced to bloody parts, then Pinhead closes the puzzlebox, and they all disappear, leaving the room empty.
And then, Larry and Julia let themselves in.
Again, the storytelling is visual, mainly – we learn of Frank’s previous presence in the house, and his relationship to Larry very quickly. The reveal that Julia had a torrid affair with the bad boy brother is revealed through flashback. There’s an incredible sequence where she’s fantasising about their rutting, the grunting of their remembered union echoed by the grunts of her husband and the workmen trying to get the mattress up the stairs, the protruding nail in focus long before the pushing shoves Larry’s hand into it, Larry’s blood hitting the floor, and that blood draining into the floor as soon as Larry and Julia leave, the rebirth of Frank...
And I’ll let you know when I go back for the re-watch, but my memory is the effects were insanely impressive here, and in general around Frank, as he’s slowly restored to life, flesh returning to bones slowly, painfully.
As I write, I’m discovering I have very good recall of this film, far better than I suspected when I sat down. I imagine that’s because I owned the Cinema Club edition on VHS at a later date, and clearly re-watched a number of times. But I also think that it’s inherently memorable cinema. By 15 I will have seen the Elm Streets, Terminator, Aliens, and sundry Hammer horrors. This one feels special. Sure, there’s an iconic ‘villian’ and yes, of course he gets all the best lines (“No tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering.”), and sure, we’ve got the young woman heroine, so far, so 80’s horror, but...
I think it’s the mythos. The puzzle box itself appears semi-sentient, malevolent, and when it ‘solves’ to release the Cenobites, it looks evil.
The Cenobites themselves are superb creations, mercifully from an age when the physical effect was still king. They look real as hell, and as scary. And then in the middle of all this, a twisted ‘love’ story, about destructive sexual desire, with a Lady Macbeth performance for the ages.
I know I made it to the end. I also know I fell asleep before Hellbound had finished (ask me about those dreams sometime...), so it’s fair to say I will have been feeling pretty pummelled. But there was zero doubt that I’d seen something special. Did I know how special? Maybe not. I feel like... and this may well just be bullshit old man nostalgia – almost has to be, in point of fact – but I feel like I was really lucky to come up when I did. I feel like in terms of horror cinema, I happened to be the right age to catch a string of classic movies that stand the test of time and have been rarely equalled in the years since. I feel like I came up in a kind of golden age of horror cinema, and maybe the one sad thing about that is that I didn’t appreciate how special some of what I was watching was. It’s only now, when I can look back at what’s been made since, that I can appreciate the sheer raw tonnage of inventiveness, skill and talent that was being poured into these films. Hellraiser is gross-out gore in places, for sure, and as I noted above, the tent poles of the genre are firmly in place. But bloody hell there’s some incredible intelligence in the cinematic storytelling, an understanding and love of film, note perfect performances, and it all comes together in this sublimely paced 90 minute package. I think Hellraiser is one of the greats, and was probably wasted on 15 year old me.
Fuck it – let’s see, shall we?
Yes yes yes. Recall is good. I was right about the elegance of the storytelling for one. That continues throughout the movie, keeping things to a tight and taught 90 minutes. The performances are great too – the leads, of course, but even the supporting cast. Kirstie’s love interest is a little 2D, but the dinner guests are great. Even better are Julia’s three victims, each a brilliantly sketched model of lonely desperation, masked to a greater or lesser degree. The second is my personal favourite – in just two lines,
I know him well enough to not be remotely sad when Julia bashes his brains in thirty seconds later. That’s skilled writing, folks.
And the makeup! Yes, the special effects - and one thing I had forgotten at a conscious level is how good the sound is for Frank’s regeneration and in general, clanking chains on wood, oozing, slurping draining, ah, so, so visceral and brilliantly yucky – but the actual makeup transformation of Julia from slightly cold and aloof wife to near deranged with terror through to ice maiden is a goddamn triumph. Clare Higgins is a national treasure of course, and her performance here is compelling and terrifying in equal measure, but the use of different make-up to highlight the changes in her internal psychological landscape is brilliant storytelling that few will notice but most will feel on some level. The paleness of her skin as she tries to clean the blood off her face after killing her first victim, coupled with the haunted look she gives the mirror/us through smudged eyeliner – chilling. Contrasted with her later poise once she has hit her murdering stride, and the way she sets herself for subsequent seductions, and we have no less than a masterclass in visual storytelling.
Then we have Frank. And just, I don’t have the words. The three stages of Frank are surely taught in horror make up master-classes to this day, right? Sure, they fuck about with the lighting with the first incarnation, and that may have been necessity rather than virtue for all I know, but as we learned from Jaws, it scarcely matters – the impact is what counts, and boy are we impacted. And once he gets his nerve endings back and starts smoking again (!) – wow. I love the way there’s ooze dripping from him in every shot, how he gleams with... whatever he’s gleaming with. And that voice, emanating from that grotesque frame... So spooky. The love affair manages to work too – probably because of the voice, I mean, it’s Frank, right? We know it – so does Julia. It should be a gross out moment for the ages, yet somehow becomes almost touching, in a profoundly disturbing way.
Which brings us neatly to Pinhead and the Cenobites. One thing I had completely misremembered is how little the film actually features some of the most iconic creations in horror cinema (or, for my money, cinema full stop). Thanks to whoever made the decision to feature Pinhead front and centre on every poster and piece of publicity, we know what is coming, what we are to face. It’s an image that inspires dread, revulsion. Yet, with the exception of a brief glimpse in the introduction, the main man is entirely absent from his movie until the half hour mark. Even then, he’s only present as a further flashback, a mute figure observing Frank’s suffering with cold detachment alongside his grotesque companions. They don’t actually speak until well past the hour mark, and the impact when they finally do is profound.
Because it’s at that moment, as Kirsty opens the box in the hospital, that we feel the most profound horror yet. Thanks to the flashbacks, we know what these creatures are capable of, and when the chatterer shoves his fingers in Kirstie’s mouth and Pinhead recites the mantra of the box ( “You opened it. We came.”) in that rich baritone, so full of controlled menace and authority, it really is a bowel loosener for the ages. Ashley Lawrence as Kirsty sells the hell out of this scene, mind melting terror giving a manic desperation to her thinking. You can almost see the hamster wheels spinning in her mind as she desperately reaches for a way out, as she connects the horror of her confrontation with Frank to the box and the Cenobites, the intuitive leap fuelled by soul-deep horror at what she is facing. It’s really wonderful moment, played to perfection by all involved.
Also... well, here’s the thing. There’s a pleasing... simplicity to the moral code of Pinhead and his compatriots. They have a kind of morality, or at least rules, and they follow them fairly. I mean, you would not like to meet them in any kind of alley even in broad daylight, but...
But by this point in the movie, we’ve met at least one monster more scary – Frank. I mean, you could make a case for Julia too (and the sequel will put the matter gloriously beyond doubt), but at this point, it’s clear that Frank is even worse, morally, than Julia – utterly amoral, motivated purely by self interest and a lust indistinguishable from greed. Any lingering doubts on that score are completely removed when his skinless form makes a none-too-subtle attempt to rape his brother’s daughter. That’s about as gross as it gets, really. So by this point, once Kirsty has named Frank... We kind of like Pinhead, don’t we? We want him to find Frank, and drag him kicking and screaming back to where he came from – it feels like justice. Frank is irredeemably evil. He deserves Hell. And so, we find ourselves allied with one of the darkest creations in the horror genre. Hell, by the time we’re back at the house of the killers, and Frank-in-his-brother’s-skin is telling Kirsty that everything is all right now, we’re practically yelling at the screen for Pinhead to come back and shed his lying, father murdering ass.
Really, contemplate that for a second. Because let’s face facts: there’s something just a little bit unsettling about our collective love affair with the horror movie villains of the 80’s. Jason, Freddie, Michael, Leatherface... they’re all really fucking horrible people, right? Even in the best case scenario of Jason... Well, he’s killed a ton of people over his mommy issues, and with what I’d call increasingly wafer-thin justification. The others are out-and-out psychotics, with Freddy the worst of the lot – child killer turned immortal dream murderer of the kids of the people who burned him? That’s a pretty massive yuck.
And yet we loved them anyway, did we not? Sure we did. We were dumb teenagers, and we loved the movies so much, we grew to love the psychopaths that stalked through them, leaving an increasingly dismembered trail of carnage behind them. Scream did for me a pretty decent job of deconstructing that particular phenomenon, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s something that occasionally bothered me. Bothers me. I mean, not enough to stop watching or anything, but still...
But then here comes Hellraiser. And suddenly, we’ve got a villain, a monster yet, that we really can genuinely root for. Not because he’s not scary – Pinhead and the gang are about as bad as it’s possible to be, unrepentant sadists who will commit you to an eternity of vile torments, violence and unending agony. No, we root for them because we’ve found someone who we think deserves that fate, and we want him to go, and Kirsty to be safe. The moment when Frank admits his crime and the lights turn blue, filtering through the boards of wood in the wall, our hearts rise even as our stomachs sink. Because Hell is coming for Frank, and that’s both awesome and terrible.
And really, what finer tribute can there be to this extraordinary movie that that? It’s the genius of Clave Barker’s towering imagination that he can conceive of so unremittingly dark and terrifying a creation as Pinhead and the Cenobites, and then find a way to make us root for them, without once compromising on or mitigating their awful nature. In this respect, it really does tower over so many of the other movies of the period that I’ll be writing about in the coming months. I’ll be looking out for it, but I doubt there will be a moment as simultaneously triumphant and terrifying as the moment that Pinhead shouts
No shit, man.
Sure, the denouement following that moment is necessarily slightly anti-climactic, and I could have done without the scrap with the gate-guardian thing, and it’s a little unfortunate that the loop ending (“What’s your pleasure, sir?”) needed walking back for the sequel, but these are pretty tiny quibbles in the face of such a colossal achievement.
Hellraiser is, simply put, one of the finest horror movies ever made. I loved it then, and love it now, and it is utterly worthy of that love. Happy 27th birthday, scary movie. Thanks for holding up.
And of course, the sequel is even better...