So it occurred to me in my last post that while I gave a good brief overview on what the series was about I didn’t talk much about the novella that started it all. And that’s a shame because I have read it and it’s very good. So before we dive into the first three film installments, allow me to discuss the films origins.
(Please note from here on there will be LOTS of spoilers)
First let’s talk briefly of the plot to The Hellbound Heart.
It all begins with a man named Frank. Frank Cotton is a man who is unable to achieve sexual satisfaction, despite exploring every means available on Earth (some means quite deplorable). A wicked man, he has used unscrupulous methods to attain a mysterious puzzle box that will allegedly open up a bridge-way between worlds and invite forth creatures that are capable of giving the solver otherworldly pleasures. Frank doesn’t realize until too late that theirs is a realm of suffering, not paradise. He is later able to escape however, with the aid of his lover Julia, who is married to his brother Rory. In order to hide from the Cenobites he needs sacrificial victims, so Julia lures men to her home to be killed. Kirsty, a neighbor, notices suspicious activity from Julia and begins snooping around in hopes of discovering her cheating on Rory. Instead she discovers Frank and later the Cenobites by opening the box herself. In order not to be dragged to their realm she offers to reveal Frank’s deception to them. Ultimately she does so, and is given the box to become its keeper until the next victim comes along.
The Hellbound Heart mirrors the plot to Hellraiser very closely and retains the same visceral style. There are a few noticeable differences though. While the character of Kirsty maintains her position as the lead protagonist, she is not the daughter of Rory, but an infatuated neighbor (and not beautiful like the actress Ashley Laurence). “Hell” is obviously another dimension, not the Biblical one (“the Cenobites’ form of “pleasure,” and the realm in which they practice it, is simply so awful that it appears to be Hell to those unable to endure it”). The way in which the box, known in the novella as “the Lemarchand Configuration,” is opened differs significantly as it involves a complicated ritual and can take days to loosen just a single piece (the box is also smoothed and devoid of markings, and takes days to open because it must be completely disassembled and then reassembled).
The Cenobites are also represented in a completely different manner than in the films (almost genderless, completely scarred, malformed, tattooed, etc). And when it is opened, the Cenobites do not just drag off the victim, but instead negotiate with them. If the victim wishes to experience the ultimate form of sensory experience that they can give them, they must then be willing to become their slave and be subjected to their hedonistic torture for an eternity afterwards. As in the case with Frank Cotton, “With Frank as their newest “experiment,” the Cenobites subject Frank to a total sensory overload, at which point he realises that the Cenobites are so extreme in their devotion to sadomasochism that they no longer differentiate between extreme pain and extreme pleasure. Frank is sucked into the Cenobite realm, where he realises that he will be subjected to an eternity of torture.” It is also implied in the story that despite their sadistic methods they are not the clichéd “evil” monsters of Hollywood fantasy. They are shown to be reasonable, if amoral, and will not renegade on their promises.
Now let’s take a look at the first three films.
Clive Barker’s Hellraiser:
Probably one of the best things this film has going for it is that it is directed and produced by Clive Barker himself. It’s my belief that its always a very good idea to have the author being hands on with the adaptions (though maybe not always in the directing area) because who else could be more knowledgable about the source material. Clive Barker certainly has a great imagination and was willing to put forth his best on what seemed a personal project.
Another great thing about this is it’s an original story with its own formula, which means there is an incredible amount of creativity that can go into this. As stated previously, the plot is almost identical to the novella (it should also be noted that Clive had written the novella with the intentions of it becoming a film).
A few liberties had to be taken due to the usual time and budget constraints (this films budget is estimated at roughly $1 million), as well as what special effects were available at that time (one change of note there were some problems with the costuming/facial latex which caused the Pinhead to be the lead instead of Butterball, despite Butterball resembling the lead Cenobite in the novella). However, most of the changes are interesting and seemed to have worked out for the best. Everyone loves Pinhead as an antagonist and the robes/garments and disfigurations used work well to establish rank and personality to the Cenobites. The love Kirsty feels for Rory, named “Larry” in the film, is more powerful being as she is his daughter and not his neighbor. Julia works well in as a more complex form of the “evil stepmother” (not particularly evil in the beginning) which adds more dimension to her character in the film then was given in the novella. But let’s hold off a little on the characters for a bit.
One thing the viewer might notice right away is that despite Pinhead being the central figure on any cover of the DVD, he and his fellow cenobites don’t have a dominate presence in the film. That’s because it’s really Julia’s story. While Kirsty is a huge part of film (and it’s protagonist) it’s ultimately Julia whom the viewer sees the greatest character development and goes through a great deal of conflict (more on this shortly). The Cenobites were not intended to be movie monsters and did not act as such, being fairly passive/stoic throughout the film. However they are shown as having bits of emotion, such as pride, amusement, and anger (but never over the top, fitting as they are representative of a sort of religious order).
Now let’s look at some of the characters.
As stated previously, Julia is really the star of the film, and she is played to perfection by Clare Higgins. Clare is an excellent actress and is able to make Julia’s motivations for helping Frank believable and gives her more depth than what was in the novella. Her transformation from a repressed, but sophisticated housewife into a serial murderer is very well done. The viewer sees her conflicting emotions clearly and understands her, we buy her transformation from a timid and proper housewife into a cold-blooded killer. Her chemistry with the characters is equally enjoyable, thanks to further depth of character added to the script. With Larry she is clearly dissatisfied with their relationship but makes efforts to keep the relationship pleasant and is even protective of him in the beginning. Later her desire for Frank and the promise of escape from her life overtakes any bit of affection she may have once had for Larry and she is eventually able to assist Frank in killing him. With Kirsty, the relationship is very strained; Kirsty clearly doesn’t like Julia and most likely never had any warm feelings toward her, despite Julia shown as being cordial and friendly toward Kirsty at the start of the film. The tension between both characters is evident to the audience from the onset and is heavier than in the novella because they have lived close together in this strained environment for many years (as opposed to just being neighbors). Julia also likely feels resentment toward Kirsty, either due to her not accepting her as her father’s second wife or for being a burden she didn’t want.
And speaking of Kirsty, while not as well-balanced a character as Julia she is definitely someone to root for in this series. While Ashley Laurence‘s acting is a little uneven (certainly not as polished as Clare’s) she gives the character strength and I buy her sweet relationship with Larry. Kirsty possesses a strong will, and a sharp mind. It is implied that Frank finds her more appealing than Julia (likely because of her looks and spunk), as do the Cenobites. She goes on to serve as a protagonist in two more films.
The other characters sadly aren’t as interesting or dynamic in the film. Frank feels like some generic bad boy pulled from a romance novel (and was more interesting in the novella, where he was given more character). He has little motivation beyond getting his rocks off and hiding from the Cenobites. But don’t blame Sean Chapman, he is a solid actor, there just isn’t a lot to work with here. Sean’s portrayal is fine, but his character is just a stereotyped movie “villain”, and that’s a tragedy. The extremes that he would go to I certainly buy as he is obviously a sociopath and has a lot to lose, but how did he get this way? What was his time in Hell like? I just feel that more could be done with this character, similarly with Larry. Larry is a likeable enough as a character, but equally vanilla. Andrew Robinson is another perfectly capable actor that is given a role a bit lackluster…as Larry. Actually, his performance is very good because he had more range here, playing as both Larry and Frank “Disguised.” He was actually more menacing as Frank. But as characters they were fairly standard. And Kirsty’s boyfriend was both an unnecessary character and utterly forgettable.
But let’s get to the Cenobites, because they are by far among the most interesting creations of horror cinema. In this installment they are known as part of Pinhead’s Gash (group), with the iconic Pinhead being the leader. Pinhead largely became famous because he has some of the best lines in cinematic horror history. And Doug Bradley is great at playing a quiet, yet at times playful, form of sinister. The character of Pinhead (initially) is that of a patient, calculating, menacing, and yet almost charming figure. He can be seductive at times (knowing what lurks deep in men’s hearts) and loves toying with his victims. His background is not revealed in this film (which I rather preferred), so he and the others are largely a mystery to the audience. The Female Cenobite is the only other cenobite in this film to be given a line, she appears as Pinhead’s second in command. Butterball and Chatterer do not speak and take little action.The fact that the Cenobites have such little screen time and not much is explained is something I rather enjoyed. Less is more sometimes (particularly in good horror), and as they were otherworldly beings, the less that is explained, the more intriguing they are to the audience. Plus the story really isn’t about them; it’s about Frank’s escape, Julia’s betrayal, and Kirsty’s bargain. However as evident from their huge following, the little moments we have of them on-screen have a major impact. They are utilized well by Barker here and are presented in such a delightfully decadent package that they can not be forgotten. Their designs are also clever enough that they will remain distinct and are fairly limited to the franchise.
Now, there are two plot points though that did bother me about the film. One is the introduction of The Engineer, who is presented as a monstrous squealing lizard thing with four legs. According to outside fiction and the novella, the Engineer is actually a complicated creature (and very powerful) who helped Leviathan craft the Cenobites themselves. Unfortunately none of this is revealed to the audience; instead we are presented with a unnecissary and poorly constructed chase sequence using a badly done animatronic puppet. The second point surrounds Kirsty’s bargain. In the beginning, with Franks encounter, the cenobites do not offer him a choice. They do not introduce themselves. Since the rule of thumb in these series seems to be that whomever opens the box is theirs for the taking, this seems understandable. However they took him relatively quickly, but first they ripped him in pieces before taking him away. With Kirsty, they allowed her to open a passage way, wander through it (before getting chased out), then they made their grand introduction, giving her time to not only protest but to offer an alternative. This scenario seems completely contrived for plot purposes, but I suppose I could let it slide since it is a wonderfully memorable sequence and provides us with some lovely quotes.
Now let’s look a bit at the technical side.
The special effects are very dated. Some scenes seem a bit disorienting due to lackluster editing. And while the main thematic music is memorable and quite good, other scores can distract (such as the scene where Frank spies on Julia and Larry – the score was way over the top), while some of the sound effects were outright silly (when Frank drains his victims it sounds like someone loudly sucking a watered down cola through a straw). The film can at times be grainy as well. On the plus the use of lighting is dramatic, the creature designs are excellent and, with the exception of Frank’s transformation, hold up pretty well. Some of the scenes where the skin is ripping look fake though, and as I mentioned before, The Engineer looked ridiculous (though I suppose the overall design was good). However most of these problems come from restraints from time and budget, not to mention having to work with what technology was available at the time.
Despite a few flaws though this film remains a classic. It’s storyline is interesting and it definitely represents the term “horror” well. It’s a great start to the series and can easily stand on its own, despite not being “The perfect Horror film”. Would I call it a “masterpiece” though as so many others have? Well, if I had to compare it to many of the schlock that has come out in the past decade (stuff like I Spit on Your Grave II, The Hills Have Eyes, Drag Me to Hell, Hachet, Hostel, Evil Dead and the millionth Saw and Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequels/prequels) than yes I would. It does need a little polishing up, but otherwise it’s a fantastic and engaging film to have in your collection, (a wonderful blend of fantasy and horror), and certainly a memorable experience.
In any event, it made a huge profit (audiences couldn’t get enough), so now we have our first sequel!
Hellbound: Hellraiser II:
You would be hard pressed to find a better sequel to the first than this. It keeps perfectly with the tone of the original (thanks to great directing by Tony Randall), and brings back most of the characters to continue their story (as well as bringing at least one great new character). It also improves on the story, is better edited, fills in some plot holes, and gives a proper ending. But while it remains a fan favorite of the series (often over shadowing the first), it is still far from perfection.
Brief Plot Overview: Following almost immediately after the events of the first film, Kirsty is sent to The Channard Institute because no one believes her wild tales of demonic puzzle boxes and guys with pins in their head. While institutionalized she warns of both the box and the mattress that Julia died on (which can be used to summon her back from Hell). Unfortunately for Kirsty, she doesn’t realize that the Institute is run by an evil man (Dr. Philip Channard) with a long time obsession with opening the gateway to Hell, who in fact even owns several such puzzle boxes. Naturally Dr. Channard obtains the bloody mattress and summons Julia back, who promises to help him achieve his goal in exchange for giving her a new skin. They enlist the help of a troubled patient, Tiffany, who has a talent for solving puzzles. To make a long story short, their goal is attained, Channard because the new figurehead Cenobite, and we see the return of the Pinhead’s Gash. Yay.
Again we note that, despite them being given a bigger role, the Cenobites are NOT the main antagonists. Most of the screen time is devoted to the return (and re-fleshing) of Julia and the cruel methods of Dr. Channard. Kirsty is again the main protagonist of the film, only this time she actually wants to go to Hell, believing her father to be there and in the hands of the Cenobites. Her confrontations between Julia and the Cenobites does not disappoint, to be sure, but one of the things I really enjoyed about this film is the return of Julia. Beware the wrath of a woman scorned. She is so delightfully devious in this adaption, every scene she is in is such a treat. Sensual, cunning, she is easily able to manipulate Channard for her own ends, and her desire for revenge is strong. Prim and proper Julia is long gone, now we have an evil succubus Julia who apparently made her own deal with Hell. But Channard himself also goes through an important transformation, becoming, for a brief time, a more sinister being than Pinhead and his lot. As I enjoy my horror films with strong villains, its in spades here. There are so many delightful things that could be done with these characters, it is such a shame we only have 97 minutes to play with them.
What people remember most about this addition is here we finally get the back story of the Cenobites and shown how they were created, which honestly is something I didn’t want. As stated before, I have a couple of problems with this, the primary one being that where there is less mystery, there is less intrigue and the less audience creative speculation. The secondary problem I have with it is how uneven the treatment was given by the writers and the director. Pinhead’s character treatment is done quite well, and it builds well to him becoming the unlikely hero of this film. It’s a shame though that too little detail was given for the others, though for a brief moment the audience does feel for them, their background is not revealed (which through comics and such is revealed to be quite interesting). Which makes no sense to me; if such background is to be given, shouldn’t it be fitting not to exclude the others as for the most part, as Cenobites, they are treated fairly equally in the film? Oh well, at least Doug Bradley gave another memorable performance.
One of the things great about this film is it’s the first time viewers get to see Barker’s vision of “Hell” (aka The Labyrinth), the realm of the Cenobites as ruled by their god Leviathan. “Hell” is something sinister to behold, but it is not a fiery pit, but a vast endless maze of gothic corridors leading to rooms of personal torment underneath a starless sky. Leviathan floats high above the Labyrinth like Sauron’s Eye, overseeing the control of his dominion. Hell exists as an endless, confusing, claustrophobic space; overwhelming both the audience and our protagonists.
This film had a better budget, so naturally the production values are “better”, though some of the effects are still (very) dated. But this can sometimes work to our advantage. I found the scene where Tiffany enters her own personal hell to be more disturbing with the crude production values offered (muted, faded colors, hard unyielding textured rubber, distorted maniacal laugh track…stuff nightmares are made of).
As stated earlier, the acting is good; of the main characters it has actually improved. Clare Higgins and Doug Bradley steal the show as always, it’s almost unfair to the others. But Ashley Laurence has improved (a bit), and Kenneth Cranham is wonderful. The self-flaying man was incredibly convincing.
There were a few other problems I had with the film. The ending was something I wasn’t terribly crazy about. I enjoyed the initial confrontation/stand off between the newly evolved Pinhead and his crew against Cenobite Channard, but like others found the outcome unsatisfactory. The spinning pillar emerging from the mattress was an interesting piece, but I don’t see how it would have tied in or with the original concept of the sequels involving a returning Julia, so I found it useless. I also have to nitpick at some of the unnecessary nudity in the film (since I find it cheap). One of the things I notice in the title menu is a scene with a hanging woman screaming. She is convincing, but depicted wearing a shirt. In the actual film she is topless. It adds absolutely nothing to the film to have her so. So why do it? Cheap thrills, I guess. I hate that stuff. The transformation of the Cenobites was something else I wasn’t too keen on, as it seem to go from less ritualistic in nature to pure torture. I actually liked the idea of Cenobites as being something akin to otherworldly scholar-monks, who would go to personal extremes for their craft. With this scene it felt more like forced creationism, which is not as interesting to me.
Overall though, while this film is far from perfection to me, it is a darn good film. It is an interesting piece with vivid imagery, well-performed by the cast, and most importantly appears to have a good amount of thought put into it (can’t say that for much of mainstream horror). It also continues the story and leaves room for future films, all while giving the characters involved a satisfactory ending. This to me is what a sequel should be. While there were some flaws, for the most part it keeps with the mythos of the first and therefore provides an excellent companion piece. All sequels should strive to do what it has done, as it is a rare treat in horror.
Needless to say, it was a box office hit, leaving the fans hungry for more.
Be careful what you wish for.
But let’s save that for the next post. I know, I know, I said I would discuss the first three. But considering what a bunch of Hollywood schlock the third was, it doesn’t feel right to lump it in with the two greatest of the franchise. So I will save it and Bloodlines for the next post (and believe me, I have PLENTY to say about them, Bloodlines in particular).