Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Hats off to Hellraiser

by Michael Sterrett

Hellraiser creator Clive Barker is a strange man, and like many strange men he is also somewhat of an accidental genius. The first two films in the Hellraiser canon are so utterly bizarre and nightmarish that one can’t help but look on with befuddled admiration at the person who conjured up such demented fare.

I’ll be honest, seeing Doug Bradley (aka Pinhead) in a Direct Line car insurance ad playing a PE teacher was a devastating blow from which I am yet to fully recover. But for me, whenever the dry ice starts to radiate through the door of some half-witted miscreant foolishly toying with the infamous puzzle box and the terrifying demon Cenobites float into view, all is forgiven.

The original Hellraiser, released in 1987, and apparently on the slate for a new fangled remake is unparalleled within the canon of horror fiction for its unbridled nastiness, singularity and deranged exultation of sadomasochistic practices. Any attempt to describe the film in a mere few paragraphs, or even in a tome devoted entirely to its deconstruction, is a fool’s errand, and I doubt horror buffs around the globe would give a tinker’s curse for my half-arsed assessment.

What I will say of the original movie is that it is one of the few films outside of the work of Polanski, Lynch, Russell and Cronenberg that seriously attempts to address titanic themes such as sex, death, the subconscious and visceral carnality. For the uninitiated (oh how I envy those who are yet to experience Hellraiser for the first time!) Barker’s film follows the story of the nefarious Uncle Frank, a pleasure seeking bastard who opens a gateway to Hell by means of a cool little puzzle box sold to him by a stereotypically mysterious oriental chap.

Governing this Hell are the legendary Cenobites, a kind of S&M Spanish Inquisition for the nether world and the most shit scary sadistic fuckers ever committed to film. Seriously, they make a fortnight in Eli Roth’s Hostel look like a romantic weekend break in Brighton with Andy Peters.From that point the plot frankly goes a bit mental, it’s a genuine wonder that Barker managed to convince movie executives as to its viability, yet what unfolds is so fresh, so different and uncanny that after an initial viewing many of its scenes are burned into one’s subconscious forever

The stand-out characters from the first Hellraiser movie are undoubtedly Uncle Frank’s brother, played to a tee by Andrew Robinson, and his niece played by Ashley Laurence. That’s not to say that the star of the show isn’t Doug Bradley’s Pinhead, it’s just that without the humanising qualities of Robinson and Lawrence his terrifying visage and countenance would be rendered somewhat meaningless.

The second film in the series journeys further into the world of the Cenobites, taking the narrative leap of bringing the character of Kirsty into Hell itself in search of her father. And What a Hell it is. Far from the fiery pit envisaged by Milton and a million miles away from the teaming chaos of Bosch, Barker’s Hell is a grim, cold, grey labyrinth filled with unspeakable beings and queer sexual undertones. One minute we are reminded of a hateful ghoul from the first film barrelling down a narrow medieval looking corridor, whilst the next we see a series of writhing bodies seemingly lost in some infernal and never ending pleasure and pain, in what looks like an old bath. Perhaps worst of all is the knowledge imparted to Kirsty by Pinhead that they will not even begin their torture anytime soon, stating that they have ‘eternity’ to get on with that grim business.

Hellraiser 2 is overly long, often daft, has a brain meltingly confused narrative and is oddly hypnotizing. Nothing is played for laughs; there is no postmodern irony or pop culture references, which for me makes it a far more interesting work than the majority of horror franchise sequels.

Having trawled through the entire Hellraiser series, it has become abundantly clear that what really draws me to the films and keeps me coming back for repeated viewings and musings. It is not Pinhead, Uncle Frank or the host of increasingly ludicrous Cenobites, it is the character of Kirsty that is so brilliantly played by Ashley Laurence. What Laurence manages to convey so affectively is not only a sense of empathy and realism, but an entirely human despair and disgust at the ungodly situation unfolding around her. One can’t help but feel Barker is drawing parallels between the experience of the post-adolescent and the fate that is befalling Kirsty. It seems that in an instant she is forced to deal with concepts of pain, infidelity, perverse sexuality, sadomasochism, death and bereavement. It is this very real and human core at the heart of Hellraiser that elevates it above the likes of Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday 13th or, dare I even say it, The Leprechaun.

There have been up to this point seven sequels to the original Hellraiser, and to be frank, most of them are pretty dodgy. But that’s not to say there aren’t entertaining moments of horror and unintentional hilarity present in most of these flicks. Hellraiser 3: Hell On Earth is worth a butcher’s hook purely for the Cenobite that has a CD player built into its head as well as an extremely naff early nineties rock club setting. Also noticeable is Hellraiser: Hellseeker starring the rather brilliant Dean Winters, known to those in the know as Irish Badass Ryan O’Riley in HBO’s ultra violent prison drama OZ. Although the overtly sexual content makes Hellseeker sort of a Confessions of a Hellraiser style romp, there is still a lot to be said for the unravelling storyline and reappearance of the one and only Ashley Laurence reprising her role as Kirsty from the original films

Another Hellraiser sequel worth a punt is Hellraiser: Hellworld which stars genre hero Lance Henriksen and, in a bizarre piece of casting, Victor McGuire who is known to most people born before 1990 as Jack Boswell in god-awful scouse comedy drama Bread. This skewed teen-slasher addition to the Hellraiser canon is far from good but by virtue of having a noticeably portly Pinhead hack someone’s head off with a cleaver, it is worth wasting an hour and half of your life over.

I am genuinely excited about the much lauded Hellraiser reboot. By this stage in the game the franchise has been done to death, rejigged and retooled beyond all recognition. My greatest hope is that the remake contains some of the original’s anarchic spirit and disregard for the norms and conventions of the horror genre. And if not, well I’ll just have to get the old puzzle box out of the attic and before long the Hollywood hacks who ruined one of my favourite films will be swinging from bloody hooks and jeering, “Jesusssssss wept...”

. Until then here’s to Hellraiser, one hell of a film.

This article was originally published in Art Fist Issue 9.

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