Monday 7 October 2019

The Question in Bodies #27: This Hellbound Heart

The Hellbound Heart (Clive Barker, 1986);
Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988);
Hellraiser: Hellseeker
Clive Barker's Hellraiser (Boom! Studios, 2011, ongoing)

(Pictured: The most important character in the Hellraiser franchise.
Also pictured: Pinhead.)
Some franchises are worth more attention than others. For instance, I might well return to Godzilla. Maybe watching thirty-five of them might be a step too far, although I've watched an even dozen of them, so never underestimate my capacity for obsession. And I do fully intend to return to Planet of the Apes, I promise, I promise, honest. But I've never before felt the need to go into all ten of the Hellraiser films.

Years ago I watched the first three of them back to back, and I felt that the first one, the only one written and directed by creator Clive Barker, was good for what it was (and if that sounds a little bit like I'm damning it with faint praise, that's because I am), and that the curse of diminishing returns set in quickly, not so much a drop of quality as a vertiginous plummet, somewhere around the onset of Hellbound's stupid, hokey final third. As for Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992), you know you're on to a loser when you've already lost sight of who your iconic monster is and what he does. The point is, the nine Hellraiser sequels, most of which do not have the participation of Clive Barker, are generally so bad – and bad in a specific way, the worst possible way for a horror film, because they’re just pedestrian – that the value of sitting through all of them is negligible. Hellraiser: Revelations (Hellraiser IX) was reportedly only made so that Dimension films wouldn’t lose the rights to the franchise, and it was so lazily done that they couldn’t even get Doug “damned to be Pinhead forever” Bradley to do it. So why then would I decide to do not just Hellraiser and Hellbound (to be fair, most fans sort of like this one) but Hellseeker (or, to you, Hellraiser VI)? Why should I care about the Boom! Studios comics and and not the late 80s/early 90s Epic comics (which were actually really good, as opposed to the recent ones, which aren’t)? Why this particular selection of media?

Easy: they’re the parts of the franchise which share a protagonist. They all feature the most important character in the Hellraiser series. Not Pinhead – he’s barely even a character. No, mate, I’m talking about Kirsty Cotton. The access point to all of this is Kirsty.

Spoilers for books, comics and films abound. But no tears, please. It’s such a waste of good suffering.

We have such sights to show you
The original film, Hellraiser, was the result of a parallel evolution with Barker's novella The Hellbound Heart – it's not that Hellraiser is an adaptation of the book exactly, nor is the book a novelisation of the film. They’re their own thing, and were the product of a parallel development, but having said that, the novella is worth paying a bit of attention.

In The Hellbound Heart, Frank Cotton is a basic asshole, almost on a career level. He acquires a certain puzzle box (we are told that it was made by creepy toymaker Philippe LaMarchand in the 18th century, a detail that the late 80s/early 90s Epic comics, and 1996’s Hellraiser IV: Bloodline would draw from heavily), the solution of which summons the cenobites of the Order of the Gash from beyond the "real". Frank is shallow and expects to get laid. But the cenobites’ idea of sensual pleasure are not what Frank expects and he gets pulled into a sort of hell. Some time later, Frank’s twentysomething brother Rory and Rory’s wife Julia move into the family home. No one has seen Frank for a long time, but Julia fondly remembers him, having had a brief but wild affair with him. When Rory cuts his hand and some of the blood spills on the floor of the upstairs room that Frank was in when he was taken by the cenobites, Frank gains an exit from hell, skinless and hungry for blood with which to rebuild his body.

Julia, at Frank's behest, seduces lonely men and brings them back to the house while Rory is at work, where she and Frank murder and vampirise them, each murder bringing Frank nearer to wholeness. Their plot is discovered by Rory’s friend Kirsty. Kirsty is lonely, quiet and in hopeless love with Rory. Kirsty at first thinks that Julia is having an affair, which isn’t wrong, but finds Frank in all his bloodied glory. There is a scuffle. She escapes with the puzzle box, and collapses on the street. In the hospital, she idly plays with the box and summons the priest of the cenobites, who explains that she now has to come and join them. Kirsty is more resourceful than anyone thinks, and makes a deal instead, that she will lead them to Frank.
The three point of view characters – Julia, Frank and Kirsty – are driven by disappointment. They are lonely, dissatisfied people. Frank, in his casual misogyny and baseline selfishness, enters his situation through his own lack of imagination, He is self-serving, but never finds satisfaction. Julia is beautiful, charming, and is utterly miserable in her marriage to Rory. She pines after Frank, even to the extent of being willing to cruise for men and murder them, just for the sake of having the monstrous, incomplete thing that Frank has become. And Kirsty, shy and (initially) selfless, never gets to tell Rory how she feels. No one gets what they want, but Kirsty survives and at the end of the book she has the box and she has a better understanding of her own grief and loss.

I'm not the biggest fan of Barker's prose, but Barker can certainly write a plot, and he understands human relationships and the ridiculousness and awkwardness of human bodily interactions, whether they're framed with sex or violence. For example, The Hellbound Heart is the only horror story I've ever come across where a character, trying to win at hide-and-seek with a murderous pursuer, gets panic-borne hiccups, a detail that adds to tension and at the same time is sort of the thing that would happen in the real world rather than fiction.

Barker’s film Hellraiser, the script of which was apparently written at about the time he was writing The Hellbound Heart, has more or less the same plot as the novella. It has been moved to the USA, and the relationships of the characters are changed: Frank (Sean Chapman) is much the same, but his brother is now Larry (Andrew Robinson), and both Frank and Larry are older. Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) is in her late teens and is fortysomething Larry's daughter; and Julia (Clare Higgins), in her thirties, is now the Wicked Stepmother. Now this isn't necessarily any more realistic than the dynamic in The Hellbound Heart – God knows I've seen more than one twentysomething friendship group with that exact "married couple with a friend in unrequited love with one of them" tension, and I'm about 90% sure Barker had too – but the thing about film is that realism doesn't necessarily work in fiction as well as you think. In terms of fiction, the stepmother/daughter tension, as well as being elemental as a fictional trope, is simply less complex. It takes less unpacking. Julia being a little older gives the plot line about her bringing lonely men home a more realistic sense of tragic desperation, and her pining for Frank without really grasping how she'll be discarded seems somehow to work without needing further explanation and backstory.

This is a sensible decision on Barker's part, and in fact, pretty much every decision of adaptation that Barker makes is correct. His instincts for adapting his own work for film are faultless, even if his execution is sometimes a little raw.
In the Hellraiser films, the cenobites have a priest/leader, who is sometimes called Pinhead in the credits, although not generally in dialogue. Now in The Hellbound Heart, the cenobite who most resembles Pinhead is signified as feminine, petite even. The word "girlish" is used to describe the pin-headed cenobite's movements. The audio drama adaptation of The Hellbound Heart that Bafflegab Productions (the makers of the recent Blood on Satan's Claw audio) released in 2018 and which stars Alice Lowe, Neve McIntosh and Tom Meeten in the principal roles, even has the feminine, book version of the cenobite on its cover.
But for eight Hellraiser films, "Pinhead" is all fella, for he is played by Doug Bradley, who delivers every single line in an ECHOEY! BOOMING! BARITONE! and always in ALL CAPS (weirdly, even when he’s talking quietly). Pinhead is not, it is fair to say, consistently portrayed, through no real fault of Bradley’s, who does his best to make Pinhead the same guy, no matter how incompetently he’s written. Sometimes he’s basically a sort of deliverer of moral justice, sometimes he's just doing his hellish job; sometimes he’s a straightforwardly megalomaniacal world-destroying supervillain; but in that very first film, as in the book, the cenobites and their priest are something more complex. The name “Order of the Gash” (yes, I know, but this is Clive Barker we are talking about) is deliberately supposed to recollect the monastic groups of antiquity – remember, “cenobite” is just a non-gender specific term for monks and nuns, and spare a thought now for sadistic religious tales like the Life of Tha├»s, perhaps, from which Clive Barker, himself from Liverpudlian Catholic stock, could easily have taken his inspiration. For the original cenobites, and the original cenobites of Hellraiser, contemplation and ecstacy were born of pain.
Kirsty: Who are you?
But in these original stories, the cenobites serve the purpose of supplying peril and stakes, but they are neither protagonist nor antagonist. And this is why, as the focus gradually shifts onto Pinhead and his companions, the films quickly lose their way. In prose, the point of view characters are Frank, Julia and Kirsty, with the main bulk of attention on the women, while on screen no scene is without one of these three present in some way (Hellraiser is in that respect very much a writer's film, following rules of writing). Although the title of Hellraiser, with its transparent double meaning can only refer to Frank (he's the family hellraiser, and also – look, you're clever, you can work it out), Frank is sidelined. The film concentrates on Julia and Kirsty's conflict, their mutual dislike hidden behind the same thing that both forces them to be in the same circle and drives their differences: their relationship with Larry.

With the best will in the world towards Doug Bradley, whose performance, part Infernal civil servant, part Shakespearian fiend, makes Pinhead an iconic figure, Hellraiser is at its best and truest when it is showing Kirsty and Julia's descent into the depths.
Higgins sells Julia's development from someone terrified by the sight of Frank's mutilated revenant to ice cold serial killer perfectly, the way it makes her colder, more numbed to violence, more prepared to make love with a man with no skin.
Larry [watching a boxing match on TV]: I thought this kind of stuff made you sick?
Julia [unmoved]: I've seen worse.
It's fair to say that the thing that makes Hellraiser stand apart from all its sequels is that it explores how far we'll go. Despite the fact that all the romantic relationships in Hellraiser are between straight men and women, it is very much a queer film, and a BDSM film.

Or at least it's a BDSM film if you don't know about BDSM; the painful pleasures of Hellraiser aren't really safe, sane or consensual. On the other hand, Hellraiser is a work of fiction, and a work of fiction has a safeword built into it. You can close a book. You can switch off a screen. You can walk out of a cinema. The film presents people who try a thing and then, having tried it, move onto something more, and is completely amoral in how it presents this. It's not really a descent as such, more a progression. You overcome your aversion to a thing. You try a thing. You get used to it. Then you start to like it. You move on to something more. And more. And more. And eventually, you go so far that there is nothing more left to you. And then you're a cenobite.

Sexual experimentation and serial murder, Barker posits, progress with the same general sense of steps, of stages. This is how Frank, the Cotton family hellraiser, moves into calling the cenobites in the first place (and when they get him in the end and tear him to pieces with their trademark hooks, it's why it's so vital that he stops and realises how good it feels). And if we're being a bit more meta, so does the consumption of horror fiction itself. It's certainly my experience – I started with Roger Corman's Poe movies, and now I'm doing deep dives into stuff like Martyrs. I had to get there by a process of steps. 

The gloom was like a living thing; it smothered her with murky kisses
Kirsty, as protagonist, is more complex than she at first appears. Although she seems like a victim, Kirsty has a survival instinct that comes to the fore the first time she meets Frank the Monster, and it's when she manages to steal the puzzle box that her story takes its most interesting turns. In hospital, with nothing to do but play with the puzzle box, Kirsty begins to work it – and Laurence plays with a sort of manic glee, as if the mental effort has energised her. And of course the walls open, and the cenobites come through. They mean to take her away and torture her, for she opened the box, but rather than try to run or beg, she makes a deal. She offers to give them Frank.

And this is at least as much of a surprise to the cenobites as it is to the audience. The cenobites take the deal, and deliver the same threat to Kirsty in the film as they do in the book, that if she fails, they will "tear (her) soul apart", with the subtext that they might do it anyway. In the book they make good on that deal, and in the film they try to take Kirsty anyway, leading to the scene that probably more than any other made Doug Bradley the breakout star of the film, the bit where he stands up behind Kirsty and says, "WE HAVE SUCH SIGHTS TO SHOW YOU!" 

In either version, Kirsty gives them Frank, and sends the cenobites back to Hell. And in doing so, she has pushed past her limit and finds another. She learns revenge.

Kirsty's boyfriend Steve (Robert Hines) is present for some of this, but he's no more than a witness, really, and certainly he's not there to rescue Kirsty. No, Kirsty rescues herself. Steve vanishes, dismissed with a line in Hellbound, even though it happens immediately after the action of Hellraiser. There is simply no point to him as a character.

Kirsty and Julia are the heart of these films, and the basic concentration on their arc, on the story being about the way that we discover our limits, is the reason why Hellraiser's sequels never hit with the same impact. None of the sequels have the same focus, none of them are really about something true.

So eager to play, so reluctant to admit it
The Hellraiser franchise irretrievably loses its way approximately two thirds of the way through Hellbound: Hellraiser II.

Now. There's a lot to like about the first sequel, and it both ups the stakes and fleshes out the lore of Hell – we see the labyrinthine pits of the cenobites, learn that the cenobites were all once human (although they do not recall this), and meet Leviathan, archdevil as silent floating polyhedron of metal.

And we discover Kirsty, incarcerated in a private psychiatric institution founded by and run by Dr Channard (Kenneth Cranham). Apparently kindly, Channard in fact is a monster, who keeps a basement prison full of patients on whom he is performing terrible experiments, and who has a collection of puzzle boxes and texts pertaining to Hell.

He acquires the blood-soaked mattress on which Julia's corpse was left, and uses the blood of one of his patients to feed the mattress. Julia, just as skinless as Frank was in the first film, emerges, demanding blood sacrifices to become whole just as Frank did. Julia entices Channard to follow through on summoning the cenobites, this time by encouraging Tiffany (Imogen Boorman), an apparently autistic girl, to solve the puzzle box.

Julia's resurrection is witnessed by Channard's assistant Kyle (William Hope, best known for playing the doomed Lt. Gorman in Aliens, just as green and just as doomed here). Kyle busts Kirsty out and and they go to Channard's residence. While Kyle falls into Julia's clutches, Kirsty finds her way to the dimension of the cenobites, where she finds Tiffany. Meanwhile, Julia, who has become a willing agent of Hell in a way that Frank never could be, delivers Channard to Leviathan, and Channard, mutilated and remade, becomes a cenobite. But the cenobites are creatures of order, and Channard is quite mad, and – then my eyes glaze over a bit.
OK, look. Hellbound is fine up to that point. Nothing about it matches Barker's first film, but it's got some interesting expansion of the lore, a nice revisitation of the first film's tropes, and some properly disturbing moments. Higgins, Laurence and Bradley are as good as they are in the first film, although they have less to work with. But then it turns silly. At times it contradicts the original film ("HANDS DON'T SUMMON US! IT IS DESIRE!" intones Pinhead, completely ignoring a central plot point in Hellraiser). And the exact moment where the Hellraiser franchise goes forever off the rails is the part where cenobite Channard returns to his hospital and begins to massacre his patients with the gleeful and tonally off-kilter utterance "The doctor is in!"

From here on in, things happen magically, without any explanation or context. Why does Channard turn on the other cenobites? Why, if he's obviously at least as ill as his patients, does Hell want to make him a cenobite anyway? How did Kirsty get that skin on so neatly? Where did Kirsty and Tiffany get the cash for those bouquets? What happened to Steve? Why does Pinhead KEEP SHOUTING? And what's with the weird twist in the coda with the pillar and the two unfortunate removals guys? The final act of Hellbound is a succession of absurd, abrupt plot choices and emotional beats that just don't make sense. And it doesn't have that same insistence on sticking to the theme that the original had. It tries to be more of the same but winds up being less of the same.

But as much as the last act of Hellbound descends to batshit incoherence, it is however true to Kirsty and Julia, both of whom extend their characters and find ways to navigate Hell that at least make sense in the light of who they are, even if the plot collapses around them. Julia is now a "Queen of Hell", a willing agent of Leviathan, sent to tempt Channard to his fate. And that fits her arc, from bored housewife to comfortable serial killer to agent of the inferno. Kirsty continues to be competent and resourceful, grasping the rules of Hell and working around them (although that's taken to a point where that is a bit silly). Kirsty saves Tiffany by playing Frank's game. She discovers who Pinhead is and uses that against him.
The only reason Julia didn't wind up being the main villain of the Hellraiser franchise is that Clare Higgins refused to come back for Hellraiser III. I can't help wondering what the franchise would have been like with Julia at its centre. As fun as Doug Bradley is, Clare Higgins is better and Julia is simply a more interesting character. There's only so much you can do with Pinhead, and the fact that Channard kills him and all the other original cenobites at the end of Hellbound, and the way he comes back in Hellraiser III anyway, only written as a functionally completely different character, suggests that they're already flailing.

The subtitles of Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992) and Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (1996) at least have something to do with the plots of the film, the former, which has about five seconds of Ashley Laurence in it, dealing with Pinhead's attempt to take over the world (yes, I know) and the latter being the story of LaMarchand, the creator of the puzzle box and his descendants (which is much, much less interesting than the version found in the early 90s Epic comics, which are generally significantly better than the sequels they accompany and illuminate).

Neither are good films. Hell on Earth is just plain silly while Bloodline was made as a two-hour film in an era where genre films had to be an hour and a half, tops, and wound up having so much cut to bring it down to the 90 minute mark that it makes precious little sense (and as a result, it joins the interesting and diverse body of work of Alan Smithee).

Hellraiser V: Inferno (2000) went straight to video, as did all of its successors. A boilerplate subtitle that says very little betrays a sense that no one really cares, and allegedly it wasn't even supposed to be a Hellraiser movie at all – Pinhead and co apparently just got added as an afterthought to someone else's horror script.

I won't say any more about this or any of the seventh through tenth films. There are more films. No one really rates them. To be honest, the same goes for Hellraiser VI: Hellseeker (2002) and the run of comics published by Boom! Studios starting in 2011, except for one point of interest: they're about Kirsty.

For fear that the mending of broken hearts be a puzzle neither wit nor time had skill to solve
In Hellseeker, Kirsty (Laurence, reprising her role) is married to Trevor (Dean Winters). They are driving. Their car goes off the road into the river. Trevor gets out, but cannot rescue Kirsty. He is hospitalised. He wakes up with gaps in his memory. When the police find the car, there is no sign of Kirsty, however. This is only the beginning. Trevor is beset by weird visions, of violent acts, hints that he and Kirsty may not have been as happy as he believes, and of, inevitably, the cenobites. A succession of women come onto him, and each time they wind up dead in horrific ways. He finds himself suspected. Eventually he pieces together that he and Kirsty were not happy at all, and that he and his asshole pal Bret (Trevor White) had decided to get rid of her and split the inheritance. Bret had found a LaMarchand puzzle box. Realising that this thing was dangerous but not really understanding how, Trevor gave it to Kirsty as an anniversary present.

Kirsty of course knows more than Trevor. Eventually Trevor walks right into the clutches of Pinhead. He discovers that when Kirsty opened the box she offered Pinhead five souls in exchange for hers: Bret's, the souls of Trevor's lovers, and the soul of Trevor himself. It was Trevor who died in the car crash. We return to the scene of the crash, where we see the car pulled out of the river again, this time with Trevor's corpse inside. She is handed the puzzle box.

It's not a good film at all. It's straight where the first couple of films were queer, and even – and this is the very worst sin a horror film can commit – a bit dull. Hellseeker's final twist – he was in Hell all along! He's a bad guy! – is the exact same twist as the preceding Hellraiser movie, Inferno. But the one thing Hellseeker gets right is Kirsty.

Now older, Kirsty, when presented with the box, displays a ruthless urge to survival that seems a logical development given the situation we discover her in. It makes sense that, a victim of a familial trauma, she would wind up in an unhappy, even abusive relationship, and it makes sense that she would follow the path of Julia. It's a dark direction, but also a logical one.

Kirsty is the protagonist of Boom! Studios' run of Clive Barker's Hellraiser comics, which began in 2011. Boom! Studios make it their stock in trade to publish comics based on second-tier movie franchises (they do the Planet of the Apes ones too) and their work generally can be pretty mixed. The first few Hellraiser comics do give Clive Barker himself a co-writing credit, however. To what extent he actually did the writing is open to question (given that he was plagued with ill health over the period the comics run got into its stride, I suspect that he just supplied general plots and the other writers did the heavy lifting). They're not good, frankly, either in writing or artwork (although the covers are pretty decent). But again, they're worthy of mention because in issue 8, Kirsty, defeated, alone and lost to despair, makes her last deal with Hell and herself becomes the feminine pinheaded cenobite Barker originally conceived. She finally gives the series a cenobite protagonist we can care about.
It's a bleak ending for Kirsty, not a particularly well-written one, and not necessarily the one I'd have expected, but it has been touched by Clive Barker's hand, so I suppose it's about as canonical as we're going to get. The idea that Frank and Julia might have aspired to hell, but that it was Kirsty who crucially had the will to survive? It feels true. It feels right. You go further and further, and then, once you've gone so far the excess is all there is left to you, and then you're one of the cenobites.

Kirsty's heart, finally broken by betrayal, disappointment and grief, might be the heart that is, more than any of the others, definitively hellbound.

Want to read more of my film criticism? My Bram Stoker Award nominated compilation We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror is out now!

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