Sometimes I feel cursed by my love of horror.
Raised on a strict no-horror diet due to a very tightly wound anxiety disorder and an over-active, only-child’s imagination, I didn’t start watching or reading horror until adulthood. That’s an essay for another day (the three movies that started it all? Alien, The Thing, and An American Werewolf in London, of course), but it led to a voracious appetite for a particular brand of good horror that’s hard to come by.
What this is leading up to is voracious me watching, and loving. Hellraiser, by Clive Barker. I’d seen a handful of the “serial” horror flicks before—Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween (which is, at its core, really the perfect slasher movie), Friday the 13th—but none made me a fraction as excited as Hellraiser.
A part of it—a big part of it—was the fact that the only thing I’m more fascinated by than disturbing movies are disturbing movies skirting the edges of erotica. Antichrist, Videodrome, Alien, and the like, are all rooted in the knife’s edge between horror and sexuality, and the fallibility of the human body. Although all arguably better movies than Hellraiser, none of them came close to the disturbing frankness with which Hellraiser portrayed its topic.
This blog post isn’t a discussion of Hellraiser or its multitude of themes—enough imagery and perversity to fill textbooks of study—but instead to explore the strange and acute disappointment that the first three Hellraiser movies evoked in me.
See, the cover of Hellraiser kind of lies. The movie isn’t about Pinhead (not even yet called ‘Pinhead’, a fan’s nickname, yet, but instead ‘Lead Cenobite’), or the other Cenobites around him. The movie is about Julia and Frank—forbidden lovers, skirting the edges of death and rebirth. Frank is haunted by the Cenobites, for sure, who appear now and again and drive the plot, but the primary glut of the film is focused on the reconstruction of the desiccated Frank, who needs to feed on blood to be reborn.
It’s a great film, a five-star horror film, worthy of its immense praise. And it works, and the reason that it works is because the Cenobites, these demons of pleasure and pain slipping into our dimension at the behest of the puzzle box, are entirely unexplained and almost noble. They’re akin to Michael Myers of Halloween, or, more literarily, the Old Ones of the H.P. Lovecraft mythos—inexplicable and beyond comprehension. There was a regality about them, and a strange poise in their violence. Like the truly great, incomprehensible horrors, they were so far beyond us that they had no reason to justify themselves. They had no back story, no revenge to reap, they just were.
But there wasn’t much of them. Which was okay—they were the icing on the cake of horrors, the gilded pins stuck in the pin cushion of the plot. I wanted more—God, I wanted so much more of them. I wanted an entire movie about these beings. Clearly, other people did too, because what we got was Hellbound, the second film in the series.
Another good film, but simultaneously a big disappointment. In the film, the Cenobites are nearly impotent, taking their other-worldly charm and replacing it with a pitiable (and not entirely explained, until the sequel) backstory. Now, they were people. And do you know what’s exciting about that? Absolutely nothing. Instead of expanding on the mythos in a way that deepened and widened their allure, the film seemed to go the opposite direction, cutting the Cenobites off at the knees (not that they wouldn’t enjoy that) and extinguishing their very real flame.
The third Hellraiser wasn’t much better. The law of diminishing returns applies doubly so to horror movies, and this film felt like a flaccid whisper of the original story. It wasn’t that it was entirely awful—there are moments of redemption—but Pinhead in particular, though taking a starring role, is split into two sides of an awful coin. His boring human side comes back to urge Female Protagonist to reign in his crazy evil side.
Crazy Evil Side, by the way, is much worse than Bald Boring Side—suddenly this regal, stoic, inexplicable being is transformed into a sort of cackling generic villain, like an S&M Freddy Krueger.
I’m left with an itching emptiness, a void that I want filled by terrifying awesome Cenobites. The Hellbound Heart, the (utterly brilliant) novella that started it all, is equally light on the Cenobite-goodness. What’s a fan to do?
So, here I am, finishing up Hellbound Heart and staring longingly at Hellraiser IV: Bloodlines on Netflix. Will it quench my thirst, or only dry up my throat? Only time, and good suffering, will tell.