“There are no new tales, only new ways to tell.” Clive Barker, in introducing Christopher Marlowe’s renaissance drama Doctor Faustus, acknowledges that the challenge for the modern writer lies in the “shaping of a fresh and original interpretation of a story cast and re-cast several hundred times.” The artist must drive “his imagination to new extremes…so that [the new work] can at least be called uniquely his.”
By 1987, following the success of his Books of Blood and The Damnation Game, Clive Barker was hot property. In a horror genre undergoing a real boom (heralded by the 1974 publication of both Stephen King’s Carrie and James Herbert’s The Rats) Barker was the new kid on the block, whose highly original work pushed the limits of the human body, and the accompanying levels of gore, further than before.
Poor adaptations had been made of two of the Books of Blood short stories so in 1986, determined to do better himself and to maintain artistic control, he began work on a film based on his own novella The Hellbound Heart. Although this would be his first full-length picture, the director’s chair was not new to him: he had for many years written and directed his own plays with the Dog Company, and had made short films in the 1970s.
Hellraiser, as the film would be called1, sees hedonist Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) taken into the sadistic realm of the Cenobites when he solves the mystery of a puzzle box. Months later, his meek brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) moves into the house where Frank had performed his lethal game, with his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) in an effort to save their floundering marriage. Larry cuts his hand on removal day, and the spilt blood resurrects Frank, with whom Julia had a passionate affair before her wedding. Julia, though initially horrified by Frank’s condition, agrees to bring more blood to restore him to life. This she does via a series of liaisons with unwitting single men, whom she lures home and murders (with increasing skill and enjoyment). Frank grows: he regains a sense of touch and taste and after he tells Julia of the Cenobites’ existence, the two plan to escape together.
Aware that all is not well in the marital abode, Larry persuades his grown-up daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) to speak to Julia (the relationship between the two women is frosty). Kirsty, however, stumbles across Julia in the middle of one of her “liaisons” and is confronted by Frank. Finding the puzzle box, and realising its importance to Frank, she escapes with it, only to solve the riddle herself. After a close escape from a Hell which consists of endless dusty corridors2, she is found by the Mephistophelean Cenobites. Their visitation is one of the most iconic scenes in 1980s horror cinema. Terrified, she tries to do a deal: if she can lead them to Frank, they can take him back with them rather than her.
This she does, but not before Frank, realising time is against him, has found the finishing touch to his resurrection: a new skin, courtesy of brother Larry. Kirsty’s confrontation with Frank, Julia and the Cenobites forms the climax to the film. “There is a happy ending”, Barker said in an interview to promote the film, “but not for everyone”.
Although Barker’s vision, in whatever medium, is always uniquely and identifiably his own, Hellraiser’s parentage is not hard to find: Doctor Faustus (c1590) as mentioned above, and Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960).
Hellraiser is not the first Barker fiction to feature a Faustian bargain: The Damnation Game and The Last Illusion are re-tellings of the myth. But whereas Faustus makes his deal, enjoys the spurious fruits of it for twenty four years, then is hauled off to Hell by the demons he had hitherto had at his beck & call, in Hellraiser Larry Cotton is ripped to pieces right at the start. The film is therefore “what happened to Faustus afterwards?”
Faustus contains, as Barker noted, two stories: that of “the ambitious man brought down through…extremes” (as Barker noted to interviewer Kim Newman, Hellraiser is about “the consequences of desire pressed…beyond the limits”), and also “intercourse with hellish divinities”.
All of Marlowe’s work – not just Faustus – is ambiguous, and that ambiguity is furthered by what little is known of Marlowe himself: a possible government spy, possibly an atheist, possibly gay and certainly murdered in suspicious circumstances aged just 29. Much of his work can be read either as, politically, not too distant from the Christian morality plays which his work did much to render obsolete, or else championing the new renaissance attitude of enquiry and boundary-pushing. Faustus, though, is unambiguously damned, and whether we cheer or weep for him depends on our own outlook on life.
But, crucially, he is damned: that is, cast out of God’s sight, and condemned to a very real, physical Hell3. Barker’s world view – though over the years the Christianity which underpins it has become more evident – is much more post-Enlightenment. There is no God, and no Devil, either. Rather, Hell is subjective and, in seeming to consist of endless horizontal corridors, is non-hierarchical and therefore contrary to the prevailing image of Hell as a vertical pit. Its agents are the Cenobites, whose role is equally ambiguous: “demons to some, angels to others”. This existentialist afterlife is a sliding scale of pain and pleasure intermingled, curated by these beings, and it proved too much even for Frank.
“With the gods in retreat”, wrote Barker, “and the idea of the purgatorial judgement less acceptable to the modern mind, [in] the new adventures after death as dust and spirit, all imaginative accounts…become essential reading.”
At the centre of Hellraiser is female agency. This, in an era (and a genre) in which the fate of most females was to be either screaming victim or sex object, makes Barker’s film hugely refreshing. Julia is the motor of the film (in the novella “she had made this man, or re-made him…the thrill she felt…was the thrill of ownership”), and her stepdaughter Kirsty’s struggle for independence (achieved in the most brutal terms at the end) is the yin to her yang.
Les Yeux Sans Visage pits the doctor’s assistant Louise in a similar role to Julia: she cruises Paris in search of girls with certain, specific attributes, abducts them, takes them back to her employer and he removes the skin of their faces in order to rebuild the shattered features of his daughter. Each experiment fails, and another victim is needed. But the stepmother figure of Louise does her job out of a sense of duty to her scientist boss (arrogant, successful, acclaimed). Both films are family affairs, but there is arguably more love in Hellraiser: Larry for Kirsty (and vice-versa), Larry for Julia, Julia for Frank. Dr Génessier in Les Yeux performs his operations from an obsession; evidently it is unconscionable that his daughter may be part of society with a scarred face: she must be either beautiful, or to all intents and purposes dead. He plays God, trying to fix his little world. But who is the monster? Who is really divorced from society? They live in a secluded mansion outside Paris, whereas the Cottons’ home is an average north London semi-detached. The Cottons could be you or me.
Julia, though a murderer, is Hellraiser’s tragic figure. Trapped in a passionless marriage, among friends (in the novella) whom she holds in contempt, she is an atypical “evil stepmother”, in that she seems wary of Kirsty rather than jealous: after all, she no longer cares for Larry and so isn’t in a battle for his affection. She is only truly alive when with Frank; at other times her speeches show only platitudes and deceit. But she is being used. Frank has had Julia (before his death and after) and seeing Kirsty, he now wants her. When he ultimately kills Julia it is accidental, but without remorse.
Kirsty’s character is the one major change between Barker’s original novella and the movie version. In The Hellbound Heart she is a simpering wallflower, awed by Larry (“Rory” in the book). But, though Ashley Laurence’s performance is occasionally over the top, as a daughter she gives the film a dynamic the novella – for all its strengths – lacks. As Barker said in the interview with Newman “I liked that…in the novella, the heroine was a loser, but you can’t live with someone like that for the length of a movie”.
Near the start of the film, after a phone call to her father introduces the character, we see Kirsty walk along the Thames through post-industrial ruins. Partly this short scene provides a directorial “beat”, a moment’s breathing space, but it also establishes Kirsty as a character working to attain a degree of independence (Larry wants her to stay in the family home; how would things have transpired if she had?).
She has a relationship with Steve (who the script makes abundantly clear is English, though the actor’s lines have been dubbed by an American, thus rendering some of the dialogue absurd), but his function is limited to offering support and he is probably the most superfluous figure in the film. Kirsty is essentially on her own when things go wrong. In going to visit Julia, she merely speeds things up and spells her father’s doom. Frank and Julia had no plan to kill him before, but now there is no time to find another victim. When Frank – in Larry’s skin4 – hunts her down among the upstairs rooms, a wooden statue of Jesus falls out of a cupboard onto her. But this is a world without God, and he can’t save her. She shoves it, useless, back into the cupboard.
In an echo of Les Yeux’s end, where the daughter, having stabbed Louise, then releases the dogs who tear her father apart, Kirsty betrays her uncle to the Cenobites, who do much the same thing to Frank. Playing by their own rules – this is their game, after all – the Cenobites then pursue Kirsty, who must re-solve the puzzle box in order to expel them. In the novella, the Cenobites dismiss her and are only interested in Frank. She escapes the house, which “had not capitulated to the forces unleashed within. It stood now as quiet as a grave. No; quieter.”
Unfortunately, such a downbeat ending is not appropriate for a horror film, and in Hellraiser the Cenobites are consigned back to where they came from: a more conservative and conventional ending, and at odds with Barker’s usual treatment of “the Other” in his work.
Hellraiser was a success, and for a brief period in the late 80s it seemed there was no artistic medium that Barker could not master, and that he would be *the* name in horror for the foreseeable future. However, the studio treatment of his second feature, Nightbreed, ensured that it was a commercial flop (if a belated cult favourite), and none of his subsequent films have had the same impact as his debut. In fiction, too, it’s arguable that (although he has written fine books since then), following the dazzling Weaveworld and Imajica, he peaked with 1996’s Sacrament. No longer the enfant terrible of the British fantastique, he now lacks the public profile of Stephen King, who famously prophesied Barker would be “the future of horror”. The 2015 sequel to The Hellbound Heart – The Scarlet Gospels – was maddeningly frustrating: brilliant in some places, awful in others.
As for Hellraiser, it has spawned about a million sequels. None of them is worth watching, with the possible exception of Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, and that only once. The “lead Cenobite” – Pinhead – is a cultural icon in his way, and a remake of the original is in the works, with Barker writing the screenplay. Perhaps CGI can improve on the dated effects of the original. Will it emerge from the shadow of its parent? And will it still “tear your soul apart”?
1 New World thought The Hellbound Heart sounded too much like a love story.
2 The idea is expanded to that of a labyrinth, a really interesting idea, in the otherwise unnecessary first sequel Hellbound.
3 Though, that said, his demonic familiar Mephistopheles does make one of the greatest speeches in English drama:
“Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think’st thou that I who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being depriv’d of everlasting bliss?”
4 At this point, Andrew Robinson turns the performance levels up to 11, with highly entertaining results.
Barker, Clive: The Hellbound Heart (Collins, 1991)
Jones, Stephen (ed.): Clive Barker: Shadows in Eden (Underwood Miller, 1991)
Marlowe, Christopher: Doctor Faustus: The A Text (ed. David Ormerod & Christopher Wortham) (University of Western Australia Press, 1985)
Hellraiser (Blu-Ray, Arrow Films, 2016)
Les Yeux Sans Visage (DVD, BFI, 2015)