Hellraiser & Hellbound: Hellraiser II

The Pain, The Pleasure: Horror of the Body

An essay by: Witney Seibold


Warning: This essay will contain the f-word, references to blood, horrible gore, depraved violence, and enthusiastic sex.  

Our bodily demands:

I recently read a book on the founding and principles of the science of thermodynamics which focused on the science’s mavericks, James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell was interested in why heat disperses, and why the heat energy cannot be captured or moved about more easily. The book covered the lives of many early thermodynamic theorists, and each of them was interested in similar problems, usually boiling down to the question of why heat, and hence energy, disperses.           

I got to thinking while reading this book, why it was each of these theorists was preoccupied with heat. Why are they concerned with heat dispersing and not chill entering? The central metaphoric image used in the book was the cooling of a cup of tea. Why not the warming of a glass of juice? Why have all the thermodynamic principles fixated on heat as energy?           

The answer is simple: because we, as humans, as mammals, require heat to survive. Our bodies require a certain temperature to be comfortable, and it’s warmer than what is usually considered “room temperature.”           

So what if our bodies were constructed slightly differently? What if we evolved to have a body temperature of slightly cooler? Say, 88.6°? Or even 95.6°? Then our preoccupations with heat would be different, our need to retain heat would be lower, and the entire science of thermodynamics would be altered.            

I know this is all a roundabout way of getting there, but my point is I think we, as a species, are less concerned with the way the way the universe works than we are with our own bodies. When looked at a certain way, our bodies demand more of us, require more attention, and have much stronger urges than our minds ever could. We can be reading the best book ever written, and “losing ourselves” to the prose and story, but if our chair is uncomfortable, we’ll have to move before we can continue reading. We may have the opportunity to listen to a wonderful concert of our favorite music, but if we come down with a cold, we’ll have to skip. We may be Christ or Nietzsche or Plato, but that sermon or lecture or dialogue will not be written until we hit the can. We can feed our minds all we like, but all that will be moot if we forget to feed our bodies.            

And, most relevant to this essay: We may be trying to stay on task, to live our lives cleanly and purely, to keep a daily rhythm, but when our strong sexual appetites get in the way, we are powerless. According to most doctrines, lust in a deadly sin. But tell a teenage boy to stop masturbating, ask a new young couple to give up their Sunday afternoon fuck marathons, or an aging swinger to stop having those wild parties that they throw in Orange County, and, y’know what? Nothing will change.            

 Clive Barker:           

While most of my reading peers in high school were busy mucking through the complete works of Stephen King (our first excuse, as teenagers, to read something gory and lurid full of curse words), I was reading the works of British novelist/playwright Clive Barker. There was something about Barker’s surreal fantasy images that held me more than the New England suburban dystopia of King. Most of Clive Barker’s stories revolved around people who were dealing with trying to overcome their own bodily appetites. A man who is freed once he no longer has his skin. A traveler who obtains a weird sort of enlightenment in a particularly seedy strip joint. A man who is given a powerful drug that makes him unable to resist any sexual impulse. Every one of his books featured at least one scene in which a character was moved mystically through an act of carnal intensity. As a teenager – a time in one’s life when hormones have turned ones mind into a sloppy goo full of unrealized sexual explosions and uncontrolled lusts – I became enthralled with a writer who wrote simultaneously about fantasy (fulfilling my childhood interest in monsters) and frank sex (fulfilling my desires for prurient voyeurism and sexual curiosity).            

He also made numerous films, TV movies, comic books, action figures, video games, and many other things that directly appealed to every one of my teenage interests. God bless my father to driving me out to one of his book signings one hot afternoon with a few hyperactive friends in the backseat, just so we could shake his hand.           

I read many of his books (I recommend The Thief of Always and The Great and Secret Show), but eventually outgrew most of them, as I began to tire of his pulpy style and sometime-unclear mysticism. Most of us outgrow that hormone brain soup of our adolescence anyway. My interest in Barker’s few horror films (he acted as writer or director on “Candyman,” “Night Breed,” and “Lord of Illusions”), however, has not waned. Cutting past the problem of prose, his films give us real physical images to contend with; challenging and bloody images. And his first film as director, and still his most famous, is still probably his best.           

Clive Barker wrote and directed “Hellraiser” in 1987, adapted from his own short story “The Hellbound Heart.” Like most horror films of the 1980s, the special effects look kind of cheap (metal meathooks pierce a man’s skin at one point, and the skin looks only like the rubber molding it is), there are many bloody moments that are excessive or unnecessary (unless you are an avid gorehound), and the ending doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense, but, watching it again as an adult, one discovers that the film’s mythology is just as powerful, and the statements of unleashed lust are just as strong. If Menelaus is willing to launch a thousand ships just to get his woman back, is it that implausible that “Hellraiser’s” Julia (played by Clare Higgins) will stave in men’s heads with a claw hammer just for another good hard fuck with Frank (Sean Chapman, whole. Oliver Smith, skinless)? The film is striking and unusual and will not be forgotten once it is in your mind. And, despite being undeniably cheap and unnecessarily bloody at times, it still seems to possess a good deal more class, mystery, and thought than many of its genre contemporaries. “Hellraiser” is a great horror film.


Let me give you the story.            


Before we learn his name, we see Frank, a dirty American man abroad in
England – unkempt, sweaty, animal – purchasing an elaborate puzzle from a faceless merchant. “What’s your pleasure?” the merchant intones. Frank is next seen solving the box, nude, in an attic room somewhere. As it opens, chains reach out of the darkness, hook through his skin and pull him to pieces. We see the hands of some mysterious beings poking through his remains shortly thereafter. The hands solve the box again, and everything vanishes.            

Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his second wife Julia are moving back into their old house in
England. At the outset, it is clear that their marriage is not going at all well. The move is intended to kickstart their marriage, but the house looks like the setting for a particularly depressing Ingmar Bergman chamber drama. They find a sink full of filth and all other manner of detritus left behind. Frank had been squatting here, and presumably experienced his little puzzle box adventure in this house.           

Larry proceeds to move things in. Julia begins having flashbacks. It turns out that she had an affair with Frank just before her marriage to Larry. From the looks of things, she was immensely turned on by Frank’s animal passions and rough-hewn, unapologetic sexuality. It wasn’t a love affair, it wasn’t a mild sexual indiscretion. It was a good hard earth-shattering fuck.           

In the midst of this, we’re introduced to Kirsty (Ashley Lawrence), Larry’s teenage daughter from his first marriage. She’s a warm and inexperienced girl, but obviously dislikes Julia, and is determined to move out on her own.           

While Larry is moving, he gouges his hand on a nail. He wanders into an empty room and bleeds copiously on the floor. He and Julia head to the hospital. In their absence, his blood soaks into the floorboards and is absorbed by a pulsating organ. The organ grows and undulates and, in an amazing special effects sequence, we see Frank rise again from the floorboards, not quite wholly formed.            

Julia eventually wanders back into the empty room later in the film where she discovers this beastly skinless Frank. He explains that he needs more blood. She, terrified and dazed, but too enticed by the idea of having Frank again, takes to the bars to pick up men, lure them back him, smash them with a claw hammer, and allow Frank to, somehow, absorb their fluids into his body, making him more whole each time. Larry doesn’t notice any of this, and tries to be a good husband.           

Frank eventually explains what the puzzle box in all about. It’s a puzzle that allows one to experience the ultimate physical pleasure. When solved, it summons a group of otherworldly beings, called cenobites in the credits, who are, more or less, sadomasochists from beyond the grave. The cenobites (lead by Doug Bradley, later nicknamed “Pinhead”) are leather-clad vampire-like figures, all mutilated in some creative fashion (one has nails evenly spaced throughout its head, another has its throat held open by wires), and ready to do bodily damage. They, with their flying meathooks, turn pain and pleasure into an indivisible force. Then, once they have used up their charges, they drag them back to whatever realm they came from (Hell?).            

In the mist of Julia and Frank’s killing spree, Kirsty wanders over to talk to her dad, and also finds Frank, now able to stand, but with his bloody muscle exposed. She is terrified. She takes the box from Frank, runs, and passes out in the street. She awakens in a hospital, solves the box, and summons the cenobites. She pleas with them to let her go, and offers to give Frank back to them in exchange for herself. She runs to warn her father, but at this point, Frank and Julia have become so impatient waiting for Frank to grow skin, that they have already skinned poor Larry, and dressed Frank in it.           

Big showdown. House blows up. Kirsty solves the box in time to stave off the cenobites from getting her. Then there’s a strange and largely unnecessary ending in which a gaunt homeless man, who has appeared from time to time throughout the film, turns into a big demon skeleton and flies away with the box. 


If horror films are designed to dissect, and perhaps exorcize our fears, then “Hellraiser” is all about our fears of our own bodies, and the strange power that sex has over us.            

Every character in “Hellraiser” becomes clearer when looked at though a sexual portal; they are largely defined by their amount of sexual experience. Kirsty (sixteen years old) appears to lose her virginity during the course of the film to a charming older man named Steve (Robert Hines). She is only now discivering what a wild and emotional world sexual attraction can be. She is innocent and clean, taking her first steps into a world that can be loving and fulfilling, but monstrous and terrifying. Frank is a sexual hedonist. His leather pants and tattoos and bad-boy appeal suggest that he has had sex with many, many women (and, knowing Clive Barker, probably a few men), and has done some pretty depraved things in search of more pleasure. He has dirty pictures, mattresses on the floor, and dirty statuettes. Frank and Kirtsy are the polar opposites of this sexual universe. One represents overripe sexuality, then other the mere blossom. We even hear a baby crying a few times throughout the film on the soundtrack. The characters are constantly being born into new things, Kirsty especially. Their dichotomy is further accentuated by Frank’s repetition of the phrase “Come to daddy,” which implies that perhaps Frank is Kirsty’s real father…           

Larry is depicted as a hapless dope who is just too oblivious to notice that his wife is feeding men to a skinless incubus right in his own house. He has no sexual passion at all. He is seen in one sexual situation, which was instigated by Julia, and then ceases his advanced, also at Julia’s behest. While Frank is a bleeding skinless mass who is obsessed with the pleasures his own body can produce, Larry is afraid to look at his own bleeding hand, and doesn’t have sex at all. Frank is obsessed with his body, Larry fears his.           

The men Julia brings home, sexual playthings, are even defined by their fumbling sexual advances. One is drunk and tries to be a suave as possible, only to grope and paw at Julia in a really awkward manner. He takes his pants down while he still wears his shirt, tie, and coat, making for a rather ridiculous image. One of her johns has obviously done this before, asking about the mechanics of a one-night stand. One only manages to say “I get lonely sometimes.”           

Julia, while obviously a villainess, is something of a feminist figure. Kirsty may be a tender delicate blossom (blah. Blah, blah), but Julia is a woman who is taking charge of her sexuality. Here is a woman who is unsatisfied with her marriage, obviously not getting the sex she needs, and seeking to recreate the single most intense fuck she has experienced with a man she knows is capable of it. She is not merely killing at the behest of Frank; he is not using her. And she is not, in turn, using him. They both want each other again. They both want, WANT, the pleasures of the flesh. It’s their combined overpowering lust that brings about all the horror in the film. If that’s not a powerful metaphor for the effect an affair can have, I don’t know what is. 

The cenobites:           

Rather than have a mere depiction of desire, the film gives us beings who represent ultimate desire. The cenobites are a purified version of physical sex personified. Extreme, terrifying, threatening to tear you apart, but not before forcing you into an uncontrollable explosion of orgasmic pleasure. They are the beings we glimpse while we have our first enormous orgasm. We climax, and the world turns off for a few moments. Good sex can transport us. Then, when we’ve returned, we may become a bit frightened by the vulnerability we have experienced. The cenobites are there to take advantage of, and extend, that vulnerability. They offer the promise of pleasure, but are horrible to behold.           

 The cenobites, conceived by Clive Barker himself, are of the more striking characters in cinema. The pale skin, elaborate makeup, and carefully place mutilations make them attractive and repellant. We don’t see them on screen very much in “Hellraiser,” but they are obviously the main characters, and the central images we take from the film. We know what they represent, and we fear them. That representational fear, combined with the powerful images of hooks and nails lend themselves to something more than drama: they are mythic.            

Despite its sometime cheesy gore, despite its sometime cheesy melodrama, despite its sometime really cheesy special effects, and despite is really strange ending, “Hellraiser” stands out because of this mythology. It is primal and powerful, and not easily forgotten. 

“Hellbound: Hellraiser II”           

Two years later, a director named Tony Randel decided to make a sequel to “Hellraiser.” He had a bigger budget, and decided to reinterpret things. This is the usual way of the horror film. Since most horror films can be made on the cheap, and big name actors rarely star, it’s easy to bank in on the success of a film. Even powerful stand-alone fright films like “The Exorcist,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Silence of the Lambs” have sequels. So it was only natural that this 1987 British cheapie (“Hellraiser” was something of a sleeper hit) be continued.           

Clive Barker came up with the story, but the universe of the first film was expanded a bit. Not to mention the level of gore. “Hellbound: Hellraiser II” is far more surreal, far more epic, and far, far less cogent than the first film. Its themes tend to meander, and the characters become broader types. I still have to mention the film, though, for the sheer strength of its images, and the way it effectively expands the already powerful mythology of the first film.           

The story of Hellbound: Hellraiser II.” Kirsty is in a mental hospital after the weirdness she experienced in the first film. She has a vision of her skinless father burning in Hell, and needs to find the puzzle box again to go into the realm of the cenobites and retrieve him. She enlists the help of an intern named Kyle (William Hope). The puzzle box has found its way into the hands of Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham), the man who runs the mental institution.            

Kyle discovers that Dr. Channard’s house is full of relics equaling a lifetime of curiosity into the workings of this hedonistic universe gimped in the first film. He has not experienced it, but is obsessed with seeing it. He even has the mattress on which Julia died in the first film. In a gruesome bloodletting scene, he soaks the mattress, and resurrects Julia (Deborah Joel, when skinless), also skinless. He wraps her in bandages and, similar to the first film, lures women back to his house so she can absorb them and grown her skin back. This time, though, they are successful and don’t have to resort to out-and-out skinning anyone. Kirsty discovers what they’re up to, but is knocked out.            

Also at the Channard Instutute is a mute teenager named Tiffany (Imogen Boorman, boy did I have a crush on her when I was 15) who is a savant at solving puzzles. No wonder then, that Channard and Julia make her solves the puzzle, and open the gateway to Hell. To quote Crow T. Robot, “What is it about the gates of hell that compels people to wander into ‘em?”            

Julia, it turns out, has become quite the celebrity in Hell, and introduces Channard to all the obsessions therein. It’s not just sex in this realm. It’s actually the abyss of obsession that this realm was created by. We even get to see the torturous “god” of the realm, a big floating silver monolith called Leviathan. Channard is forced into a torture chamber of sorts where he is transformed into a cenobite.           

Kirsty, meanwhile, wanders into Hell as well, finds her father, who, it turns out, was Frank, trying to dupe her. Frank’s torture now is that he is constantly teased by fmoaning fantasy women, but cannot feel any more sensuality. He asks to have sex with Kirsty (possibly his own daughter), but before she can submit, flees. Hell, at this point, has spread into the institute and all the surreal visions of the insane are leaking into the real world. Or something. A lot of the images, while striking (a clown juggling its own eyeballs, an infant sewing its own mouth shut, an endless hall of mirrors), really make no sense.           

Kirsty discovers that the cenobites were once human beings, and were transformed by their obsession or curiosity into agents of Leviathan. The Channard cenobite, though, has now trumped their own obsession, and is wreaking havoc throughout Hell and his hospital. He kills the cenobites, who transform back into their human shapes. Julia is sucked away by Leviathan, leaving her skin. Kirsty puts on her skin, and saves Tiffany front the wrath of Channard.            

The ending, as bizarre as the first, shows a pair of cops examining Channard’s room, and they too find the bloody mattress. A statue rises up from the mattress, and invited us to, presumably, yet another sequel.           

“Hellbound: Hellraiser II” is not as powerful as the first, for it taps into a weird kind of obsession that only addicts really kow about, it doesn’t use the everyday fears attached to our own bodies the way the first did. Then why did I spend so long recounting its story? Because, it equates obsession with lust. Lust is merely a single-mindedness toward ones own need for sex. Why not expand that to include any kind of obsession? Especially if it’s an obsession for knowledge? Perhaps, “Hellraiser II” seems to be asking, the lusts we feel are merely in our minds, and perhaps it’s our minds we need to fear. The unknown labyrinth of our brains can be far more terrifying than the powerful needs of our bodies.            

This is a legitimate point, although the film is more interesting on a visceral level (and few films are more visceral that “Hellbound: Hellraiser II”) than an intellectual one.  The “Hellraiser” movies continued and slipped quickly into very poor quality and inappropriate misinterpretation of its own mythology. Part three had Pinhead loose in a nightclub, part four had Pinhead in space… The ninth film is currently in video stores, and there’s talk of a remake of the first. Let well enough alone, please.            

 But when going back to the first “Hellraiser,” I still feel the myth come alive again, and I feel the bodily horror splayed in front of me. The dangers of lust, the differentiation between mere sex and hard fucking, the striking and horrific image… none of them have lost their power.            

“Hellraiser” may not be for everyone. Sex has been explored in far more mature ways, and fear can be depicted without so much nauseating gore (did we really need a scene of Frank peeling a rat with a switchblade?). But for the right people (people like me) the film has the ability to dig into the consciousness, and set up home there. I dunno, perhaps I just saw it at the right age. Perhaps this film can only get under your skin if you’re the right age. But the film is under my skin. I invite you to let it gets its hooks into you as well.


Published in: on May 10, 2007 at 10:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

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