The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker, the Hellraiser series in general, etc. (spoilers as usual)

Years ago, while spending the night with a close friend, I saw Hellraiser II and I did not expect to like it.  I like older movies and I definitely like older genre movies, but the pacing just seemed off.  Within the first few minutes, my impression was mixed but not bad: it begins with a montage of Frank getting his shit torn to ribbons and quickly cuts to Kirstie in the hospital catching up newcomers in the audience with the plot.  On one hand, starting with in-world jargon that you need to see a prior film in order to understand might not be an ideal way to start a film (this doesn’t always have to be a bad thing, though, and building on ideas in previous installments is totally legit- if I ever write about the Matrix trilogy here I’ll have a lot to say about how those films handled in-world jargon and successively building on ideas- which ain’t all bad, either).

On the other hand, it was a concise, digestible way of setting the stage.  Some of the jargon- cenobite, Lament Configuration, etc -eventually become clear through the way in which their used.

I was hooked by Julie’s entrance through the bloody mattress, though: talk about some well-crafted special effects for that time.  I especially liked how her red sheen manages to resemble both blood and something hard, like ruby.  The pacing and dialogue continued to be shlocky and uneven but the creature design came back to save the day near the end.

Most memorable part was when the Channard Cenobyte destroys the other cenobytes and they all return to their human forms.  Butter Ball and The Woman turn into dead humans that bear a visible resemblance to their cenobyte forms.  We’ve already known Elliot Spencer for a while, so Pinhead’s transformation doesn’t come as that much of a surprise.  The Chatterer, though, the most inhuman-looking of the cenobytes, takes his time reverting to his form.  His body spins on the spike that it’s impaled on a few times, alternating with reaction shots from the other characters, and slowly it’s revealed that he was a child.  Kind of a young one, to.  Evidently this kiddo did something before he died that made him the most non-human of the cenobytes (before the appearance of Channard, anyway).

Do their transformations actually have something to do with what they did?  Probably.  Channard is a predatory mad scientist and he grows syringe tentacles, so yeah it looks like it.  The direction and the acting of the cenobytes subtly draws your attention to the roles their appetites play as well.

When they first appear after the little girl in the mental hospital solves the puzzle box, The Woman is sharpening a hook-like weapon in these really creepy repetitive motions.  They’re both repetitive and jerky- either like she’s struggling to control herself or like the movements are painful.  This is the Order of The Gash, though, so the answer is probably both.  The two other cenobytes that aren’t Pinhead have similar body language at times.  This tension between not being able to contain your movements while struggling to move suggests both pain and pleasure.  It also adds a level of squick to the visible wounds of the cenobytes, such as the open cavity in The Woman’s throat and Pinhead’s facial pins- almost edging between painful and erogenous.  Again, Order of The Gash, so yeah.

What if Rick and Morty parodied Hellraiser the same way they did Nightmare On Elm Street?  What would they replace Pinhead’s pins with?  The Cabin in the Woods went there, with that Pinhead lookalike with saws coming out of his face.  Kinda giggle-worthy.

So inevitably I ended up tracking down the original book by Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart.  Several years later, but still.  In the interim I had watched Hellraiser 3-5, but still had not seen the first one.  So while I knew the story of the first installment in broad strokes, I was basically coming to the book with virgin eyes.  I still couldn’t help but wonder how much of the lore of the films had its roots in the original story. While I was largely unimpressed with the third film, I did appreciate Elliot Spencer’s brief monologue during the Vietnam flashback, relating it to what he went through as a British RAF pilot in World War II.  And what about Angelique and Phillip Lemarchand?  I entertained theories: some World War II era encounter between Elliot Spencer and a 1940’s ancestor of Lemarchand that precipitated the whole thing?

Not really, as it turns out: Pinhead, in fact, has rather mysterious on-camera appearances- or the character that Pinhead derived from, I should say.  This person vaguely appears female at times but mostly seems gender-neutral, and is only referred to as the Priest of Hell.  Characters like Frank and Kirstie hear the Priest of Hell more often than they see her, so the appearance is not exactly emphasized so much as the personality.  Another mysterious presence is the Engineer, who is off-camera for most of the story.  When we see the Engineer, he looks like an energy being of some kind, a pillar of light that can, at times, focus itself into a human shape.

As the presentation of both the Priest of Hell and the Engineer suggest, Clive Barker achieves much by showing instead of telling, and showing by implication, directing your imagination while still letting it fill in most of the picture.  This is also a story where the traditional horror genre rule holds true: a story about a haunted house is really the story of the people living in it.  Appropriately, the human characters drive the entire plot.

Like I said, I haven’t seen the first Hellraiser movie, but I find it hard to think it could do justice to the compelling menace of Frank in the book.  Especially at the very end, when the Priest of Hell is prepared to close on her end of the deal- the Priest kept her hands off of Kirstie on the condition that Kirstie turn over Frank.  Frank, though, is wearing the skin suit of his brother Rory, and spins Kirstie a yarn about how Julie came clean and they both destroyed Frank together.  Kirstie is barely holding it together and she’s struggling to leave Rory with a smile on her face and get away, so he doesn’t have to see her get dragged away by the Priest of Hell.  Frank gives himself away, though, and Kirstie manages to trick him into coming clean in the presence of the Priest.

Speaking of Frank and the propensity of the monsters to straddle on and off-screen appearances, it’s probably his presence throughout the book that lets us maintain the credibility of the other monsters.  He was the first character in the book we met, so naturally we want to come back to him, a temptation that’s expertly used to build suspense.  The desire to get back to Frank sooner or later is maintained, after our first encounter with him, by little teases about his background and his relationship to his brother and his brother’s wife, Julie.  In fact, most of our view of the villainous side of the story is through the eyes of Julie, who starts out as Frank’s eyes and ears in the human world.

Frank starts off as our human viewpoint on the supernatural, and we begin to glimpse it with him- he shapes the very first, most basic steps into the world of the cenobytes, and we’re left wanting.  This tension transfers smoothly when Julie becomes aware of the supernatural presence of Frank after his death in the attic’s damp room.  It’s supported even more by the fact that Julie has intimate and painful memories of Frank, back when he was alive.  Her knowledge of him as a human connects us with him when he’s no longer a human.  The initial catastrophe of the ending builds on this as well- it looks like the undead menace that Kirstie wanted to trade for her freedom may have completely disappeared and been replaced by all the normal things she had lived with and grown to quietly suffer with- Rory and Julie are alive, doing fine, and Frank has been dealt with, leaving Kirstie to her fate.  With less quiet in the suffering to come, though.

I mean, the parallels that this moment of crisis has with her life up until that point are pretty clear.  She was always jealous of Rory and Julie and Rory was never hers; this whole event that tempts her into Rory’s life is predicated on his endangerment.  And the brief appearance of Rory and Julie as a happy couple at the end can literally send her to Hell.  Dang.  That’s some hardcore jelly.  To Kirstie’s bottomless relief, though, the menace is alive and well and she is permitted to play her part in the end.

Talk about a sweet way to bring home the forbidden desire theme.  That’s probably the biggest success of the book, though.  Not that it’s bad, it’s just not very ambitious.  I mean, it’s a novella, so no harm no foul.  What’s more is that a narrow, personal scope is just a prudent way to structure a story.  I don’t know if this still holds true, but when I was around thirteen I saw this documentary on Gore Vidal and the early positive reviews of his first book, Williwaw, which stated that Vidal avoided many common pitfalls of young writers, such as stories with intricate plots and a zillion characters.

If you stick to it too much it can be careful to the point of dullness or prudishness, but even so, it’s not something you can fault someone for.  So no hate for Clive Barker on that front.  The attempts at bigger thematic threads draw attention to the smallness of the scope, though.  All of the victims that Julie lures home to feed to Frank are brought back on the pretense of a casual fling, usually with married guys.  In all fairness, that probably would be a reliable way to bring randos home to feed to your zombie demon lover.  I’m not 100% sure how this bears up the forbidden desire thing.  Julie looks down on all of them and a few of them are portrayed as comically awkward.  Maybe it’s just meant to emphasize how fundamentally unsatisfied and lonely Julie is, feelings that drive her to Frank.  Or maybe it’s meant to highlight the growing gulf between ordinary transgressions and the world of Julie and Frank.  A few of the moments where Julie is fussing internally over the fine points of bringing men home and keeping them long enough to kill are almost delivered like punchlines, though, which doesn’t have a whole lot of precedent elsewhere in the book.  One memorable victim was a married Christian guy who got cold feet at the last minute and tried to leave.

Earlier in the book, the neighborhood’s local church is used as an opportunity for the narrator to remark that most religious devotees are going through the motions.  I’m not knocking the statement itself, but naked authorial utterances  can be…a little bald.  Maybe that dismissive attitude is meant to carry over to the Christian victim.  By drawing attention to a moment when the narrator took a step beyond narrating and started commenting, though, you just set up the audience to think that it’s going to pay off at some point and if it doesn’t it’s just an eyesore.  Especially if it’s a conventionally structured book and not something experimental on the level of Burroughs, and The Hellbound Heart is pretty conventionally structured.

There are also a few other hyperbolic moments that barely stop short of hyperbole and turn out to be statements from the narrator, but those are mostly just nit picks.  On the whole, I definitely enjoyed it, it’s a brief little supernatural thriller that delivers what it promises and handles themes like voyeurism and forbidden desire more carefully than a ton of movies in the same genre.

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