“I thought I’d gone to the limits. I hadn’t. The Cenobites gave me an experience beyond limits… pain and pleasure, indivisible.” -Frank
In 1987, author Clive Barker adapted his own novel, “The Hellbound Heart” into the film Hellraiser. It had the dubious distinction of being lumped in for the next couple decades with other eighties horror franchises, launching seven sequels on the back of its signature villain Pinhead. The categorization is unfair, as Hellraiser is hardly a slasher flick, and Pinhead an entirely different sort of creature than Freddy, Jason and their ilk. Hellraiser spiritually hearkens back to the psychological horror and nihilism of Poe and Lovecraft, drawing fear not from simple and sudden suburban violence but from the darkness beyond the guttering candlelight of civilization. There are other worlds than these, Barker posits, and they hunger.
Hellraiser is a unique sort of film from a meta point of view. Clocking in at about 30,000 words, “The Hellbound Heart,” is the perfect length for a straight up adaptation to film. The change of title has always disappointed me; “The Hellbound Heart” just sounds poetic and ominous, whereas “Hellraiser,” while literally accurate, just screams B-movie horror. And of course, it just about guaranteed that we can never have a “Hellblazer” entitled film (may Pinhead take you Keanu) because it would all be terribly confusing. Since Clive Barker himself wrote the screenplay and directed the film, any accusations of bastardization have to address Barker’s parentage of both works. The resultant film is an excellent horror film for the most part, with a few flaws grown frayed over the years.
The film hinges on a mysterious puzzle box that when solved, summons the Cenobites, grotesque demons who take the box’s solver with them to eternal torment. Frank Cotton solves the box, is ripped apart by hooked chains, and we catch our first glimpse of the iconic Pinhead: leather-clad, bald and white as cod, the symmetric grid and pins embedded in his skull echoing extreme body art. In the novel, Pinhead is not the lead demon, but he visually works better as the lead, the simplicity of his mutilation in stark contrast to the surreal and elaborate maimings of the other Cenobites.
After Frank’s disappearance, the film cuts to Frank’s brother Larry* and his wife Julia moving into Frank’s house. Their marriage is clearly troubled, Larry a weak and tentative man wedded out of his league to the beautiful but cold and distant Julia. We learn that Julia once slept with Frank and that Larry’s daughter, Kirsty, is less than enamored with her step-mother. Larry cuts his hand in the room where Frank disappeared, his blood soaking instantly into the floor. The blood of the brother opens the door between worlds but a crack and Frank begins to slip through with the aid of Julia, who turns murderous in her quest to return her former lover to flesh. Kirsty is instrumental, really the protagonist of the piece. She knows something is wrong, suspects Julia of having an affair, and in fighting for her life unwittingly solves the puzzle box herself and brings the Cenobites back into the game.
Intriguingly, many of the film’s signature quotes are not in the novel at all. “Jesus wept,” “Demons to some, angels to others,” “We have such sights to show you,” “What’s your pleasure, sir?” Such additions are welcome in the film, giving the feeling that Barker treated the film as a second draft to take the dialogue to another level. Other departures from the book are less welcome and hurt the overall story.
In the novel, Kirsty is not Larry’s daughter but a neighbor, a longtime friend who harbors secret unrequited love for Larry. She and Julia are foils for each other, the beautiful and the plain, the extrovert and the introvert, the cruel and the kind, the whore and the (symbolic at least) virgin. Their shared attribute, the pivot of everything in the tale, is their obsessive loyalty, Kirsty to Larry, Julia to Frank. By switching Kirsty from friend to daughter, little is gained, but the symmetry of the female characters is destroyed. In addition, the layered metaphors of sexuality that underpin the novel are wholly removed from the story.
In the film, little explanation is given for how Frank acquires the box and why he opens it. The novel walks us through Frank’s background, explains how he has wandered the Earth, experiencing everything sensual the world has to offer. He is bored. No experience, no sensation, no act of depravity holds the spark of his interest for long. Frank seeks out the Cenobites, having heard of them and the puzzle box from the assorted legends and rumors of other sexual gluttons. He summons the Devil, and makes his Faustian bargain. It is the definition of irony: they give him exactly what he asks for, such that it’s exactly what he doesn’t want. Frank is a sociopath of sorts, he has no understanding of intimacy or love, only pleasure. It’s an addict’s approach to sexuality: more, more, more, what was enough yesterday never will be enough again. It’s all taking, no giving. So when the Cenobites say that pleasure and pain are the same thing, Frank thinks he understands, because sex has always been pleasure for him, regardless of pain to the other. He sees that pain and pleasure are intertwined, but not that they could be inverted. They say that hell is always exactly what each person deserves: the Cenobites swallow Frank in a rapist’s hell. These themes are present in the film, but they are harder to see since so little of Frank’s perspective is explored.
The other major departure from the novel is in the tale’s ending. In the film, the Cenobites go back on their word to spare Kirsty if she returns Frank to them, leading to a horribly dated sequence of special effects and flashes of light, as Kirsty inverts the puzzle box and sends the Cenobites one by one back to their hell. Kirsty escapes and tries to burn the puzzle box, but a demon takes it from the flames and flies off with it. In the novel, however, the demons keep their word and Kirsty is tricked into taking the box with her. A foundation of tales such as this is that the Devil always keeps his word, following the letter though hardly ever the spirit of the promise. That foundation is a rich source of irony, and resonates more with the horror of the tale: the Cenobites don’t need to break their word, they’re playing the long game, and know that in the end they will always win.
The final scenes of the film and novel are also significant because it seems that the film takes an easy way out. The puzzle box is once again for sale by a dealer, seemingly bringing the story full circle. The novel though, by forcing the box upon Kirsty, brings the story to a more complicated but fulfilling circle. Kirsty examines the box, still mourning her lost love, and speculates that if there is a puzzle that can open the doors to Frank’s hell, there might also be one that opens the doors to Larry’s heaven. Where the story began with Frank’s nihilistic quest for sensation in hell, it ends with Kirsty’s optimistic quest for love in heaven.
It may seem that I have been overly harsh with the film, and think little of it. On the contrary, it is quite a satisfying horror film, brimming with atmosphere and a twisted surreality. It only really falters with the badly dated effects at the end (though they seem so unnecessary, especially given the fantastic and stomach turning manifestations of the Cenobites) and in comparison to the excellent novel. With rumors of a remake in the works, anyone who fancies horror or dark fantasy should check out the original Hellraiser and the novel “The Hellbound Heart,” if only to see the source material that still resonates two decades later.
*In the novel, the character of Larry is named Rory, but I’ll just refer to the character as Larry in both cases through this article rather than confusingly flipping back and forth or adding some sort of awkward Larry/Rory notation throughout. The change in name was a relief, since it ensured there would be no confusion in the film between its Rory and the Rory from “Gilmore Girls,” another pillar in the pantheon of horror.
“Who are you?” - Kirsty
“Explorers in the further regions of experience. Demons to some. Angels to others.” -Pinhead
Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at www.burningviolin.com, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.