EMPIRE ESSAY: Hellraiser

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A man finds he is given more than he bargains for when he solves the puzzle of the Lament Configuration - a doorway to hell. But his ex-lover has found a way of bringing him back, and his niece, Kirsty Lawrence, finds herself bargaining with the Cenobites, angels to some, demons to others, whose greatest pleasure is the greatest pain.


Stephen King, the world's most prolific author, once proved that not only does he write round the clock, he also has time to read, borrowing Rolling Stone writer Jon Landau's Bruce Springsteen quote when he said "I have seen the future of horror, and his name is Clive Barker."

High praise indeed from the grand master, who had paid close attention to the writings of the native Liverpuddlian. Barker moved to London in his early 20s and rapidly established himself in theatre-land, where his love of the bizarre, fantastical and theatrical found voice in such works as Frankenstein In Love, The History Of The Devil and the wonderfully titled The Secret Life Of Cartoons. He expanded his dark visions in short fiction, establishing himself as the new voice of British horror with such books as The Damnation Game and The Books Of Blood compilations. An early short story, Rawhead Rex, and a screenplay, Transmutations, found their way to the screen (Barker penned both scripts) much to the disappointment of the author. With those past experiences in mind, in 1987 he resolved to take control of the cinematic treatment of his work and reinvented himself as a film director for the purposes of adapting his novella The Hellhound Heart, filmed and released as Hellraiser.

It was at once a riposte to a genre dominated by American slasher franchises and the best British horror movie since the house of Hammer shut its doors. A revitalisation of the British horror movie? A paean to S&M sex? Or a cruel attack on the profound but unexpected success - of the Rubik's Cube? Hellraiser was all this. And more. Here was a film that dared to equate sensuality with fear, that cast its "villains" as beautiful victims, who were described as "demons to some, angels to others."

Indeed, the film's most pivotal image — and in many ways its most successful element — was the creation of a new screen monster. From Dracula to Frankenstein to the dead-eyed Michael Myers, the image of the horror movie has always been one that leant itself to icon-status, the Munch inspired Scream mask being the most recent example. Yet these key images are hard to find — witness the countless schlock-worthy entries in the horror movie cannon that inspire nothing more than casual interest. With the Cenobites — and Doug Bradley's Pinhead in particular — Barker created a unique horror movie presence.

"They're like sado-masochists from beyond the grave," Barker once said of the Cenobites. (In fact, Barker has joked that at one point he wanted to call the film "Sado-Masochists From Beyond The Grave" adding that "Hellraiser turned out to be far weirder that I expected.") Pinhead was revealed (in Hellhound: Hellraiser II) to be Captain Eliot Spenser, a World War II veteran who had discovered a devilish box known as the Lament Configuration and found in it his own portal into Hell. By detailing his character in the manner he did, Barker made him instantly accessible to his audience, using the "war is hell" metaphor in its most literal sense.

"I think what the monsters in movies have to say for themselves is every bit as interesting as what the human beings have to say," Barker once stated. "That's why in stalk'n'slash films I feel that half the story is missing. These creatures simply become, in a very boring way, abstractions of evil. Evil is never abstracted. I want to hear the Devil speak. I like the idea that a point of view can be made by the dark side." In 1986, drawing on his background in theatre, Clive Barker took a paltry sum of money and made a low budget movie, largely in a house in Dollis Hill. ("Low budget moviemaking is fringe theatre, except you can actually get the audience numbers that I always wanted us to get.")

His ambition was to maintain control of his work. "I always knew Hellraiser was going to be raw," he said. "It's a slightly misshapen baby — but it's mine." And to think, when its American distributor didn't like the title it was almost renamed "What A Woman Will Do For A Good Fuck." Go figure.

With Hellraiser, Clive Barker created one of the most genuinely disturbing movies of the last 20 years.