Pleasure and pain, indivisible: happy anniversary, Hellraiser

This week sees the 30th anniversary of the release of Hellraiser in the UK.

Back in 1987, anticipation for the film was high. Clive Barker’s short stories were groundbreaking in many ways – not only did they contain some wonderful writing, but the horror world had its boundaries pushed. About time, too. Female characters had depth. Gay characters were in evidence. Neither were used as figures of hatred – I can’t have been the only person inspired to write horror, knowing there was someone out there who didn’t treat the Other as the enemy (Barker was not out as gay at that time) and feel that there might just be space for me in the genre I loved so much. This was Barker’s first proper film as director (if you’ve seen Rawhead Rex, you’ll know why he prefers to forget its existence); much was expected. To the point where I hurried along to a venue near Tottenham Court Road station in London for a Hellraiser exhibition before the film’s opening. I still remember gawping at the lifesize Chatterer model when it moved – it was actually the actor in full make up. Luckily I managed to stop from screaming and just ran for it.

The film itself was almost excellent, although a few bits didn’t make sense to me. I had a feeling of disorientation – it was set in North London but as the film went on the location, and the accents, drifted towards North America. Some of the acting was appalling, too, but it didn’t really detract from the idea of the film, and the power of Barker’s imagination.

Because of my obsession with the band Coil, I was aware that they were friends of Barker’s, and I’d heard that Coil were originally commissioned to provide the soundtrack. This, and the fact that the film was going to be in black and white, would have combined to create a very different Hellraiser, less commercial, more arthouse. These things were lost with Barker going to America for financial backing (to be fair, he found it next to impossible to get backers in the UK). An American composer was imposed on the film and American accents were dubbed onto some of the characters, causing the disorientation as to the setting. Coil released their own soundtrack, which I’ve always preferred and Barker admitted to the things he hated about the film (the fact that wheels can be seen on the monster in the wall, for one). Still, it was a steep learning curve (in the ways of Hollywood as well as in direction) and Lord Of Illusion and Nightbreed were far superior. Hellraiser came out on VHS and my sister went to a signing session, again in Central London. She asked for an extra copy of the sleeve to be signed and dedicated to me, even though she wasn’t buying two videos and the shop wouldn’t like it. “They won’t,” he replied, “but fuck ’em!” and signed one for me anyway. A nice bloke.

The way Pinhead captured people’s imagination was something that always amused me. Inspired by magazines lent by Sleazy (Coil), the figure was head sadist in a film clearly based on sado-masochism (although much of it was non-consensual, breaking SM’s most basic rule) but Pinhead became a kind of hero in the same way Freddie Kreuger and Michael Myers did, which just goes to show how many horror fans need to evolve somewhat. Horror in general still has a long way to go in terms of diversity and, with the spate of torture films in recent years, I wonder if the genre is not actually going backwards in some ways. I’m not going to go into the Hellraiser sequels, which I don’t think Barker had much involvement with, or the re-making of the original, although if it has to be done (which I’m doubtful of) then why not go back to the original idea and have a super-Gothic black and white version? It’s enough for me that this film was released when I was 20, a few years before I began writing horror fiction, and it made a huge impression on me in terms of what could be done. As much of Barker’s art has. Would I be writing fiction at all if it wasn’t for him? I might be – there are other writers/artists who have been incredibly inspiring. But it would be very different. I would be very different. I haven’t watched Hellraiser for some time, but I still raised a glass to the film this week. While the Cenobites aren’t heroes to me, they’re iconic horror figures from a film that was a landmark in many ways.

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