The last month has largely consisted of talking about Stephen King, about his particular brand of horror and his insights into the human spirit. There was no preventing some of that from bleeding over into this consideration of Clive Barker, who King once described as the future of horror. Well the future is now here, and this conclusion has come to the forefront: if Stephen King’s works are about facing the dark with the companionship of others and ultimately finding the light again, then Barker’s works are about staring into and being consumed by the dark…forever and entirely alone. There’s a forbidden quality to Barker’s work, one that is simultaneously alluring and off-putting, sexy and repulsive, all bound together with the sticky wetness of blood and lifeseed that gives form to the sublime. Philosopher Edmund Burke developed the concept of the sublime in his essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756). There he defined the sublime as something vastly different and mutually exclusive from beauty. Beauty is defined by form and structure, and quantifiable physical aspects. The sublime, by his understanding, is defined as a kind of formless awe, and pleasure that stems from horror in the evidence that fear is determined by perception. Hellraiser, based on Barker’s second novel The Hellbound Heart, delivers an acute concentration of Burke’s musings on the sublime, providing us a horror experience that’s just as interested in the mind as it is the body. It’s a dim and dismal journey, but “no tears please. It’s a waste of good suffering.”
It’s almost difficult to believe that Clive Barker directed Hellraiser after only previously directing two short films (Salome and The Forbidden). It is a work, of immense care and craft that never loses sight of tone or aim within its shadows and rivets of blood. That’s a feat in an of itself for a first time feature director, and even more so for a director adapting his own work, which history has shown us doesn’t always work out. Yet Barker, with the significant support from special effects wizard Cliff Wallace, created a classic that to this day still stands as one of the genre’s finest achievements in practical effects and unrestrained imagination. What’s interesting upon reflection, is that while Barker’s demonic creations, the Cenobites, modified to the point of sexlessness, became the franchise’s signature figures, with Doug Bradley’s Pinhead at the forefront, this sadomasochistic “Order of the Gash” largely serve as bookends within the initial entry. While these Cenobites would go on to receive backstories which humanized them, and played larger roles in the more immediate sequels (of which nine have been made, and eight have been released), they are largely undefined in Barker’s novel and film. In the novel, Barker gives rough sketches of them through scars, and chains, and gaping orifices to create a kind of impressionistic marriage of sex and death. They are living embodiments of the sublime, of the magnificent vastness of our fear of death, born from the pleasure of life. Yet perhaps they aren’t so alien. Perhaps they aren’t so different from us as consumers of Barker’s work with our own powers of detached observation, and illicit pleasure in the sublime dance.
Barker’s film remains largely the same as the novel, except for one key aspect. The most significant character change is Kirsty being changed from a friend of Rory’s (Larry in the film) to his daughter. The change removes the existence of another romantic heart caught up in this story of lust and longing, while drawing the familial ties closer. But the more powerful change is how we are situated as reader by way of the novel, versus how we are situated as viewer by the film. There’s an inherent soap opera element within The Hellbound Heart, one that makes the characters’ love patterns familiar, while also making us aware of their construction from tropes. Rory is the devoted, yet naïve husband. Julia is the frigid, upper class beauty looking for release. Frank is the mysterious deviant. Kirsty is the nebbish young woman with an unrequited love. These characters never become more than these basic skeletons of sentences, never stray from their collection of recognizable aspects, situated neatly for functionality like organs. They experience the sublime by way of the narrative, but we as the readers are given our own opportunity at experience. This isn’t a criticism of Barker’s writing, but rather a testament to how we’re made to feel about these characters. They’re kept behind a glass, observable insects with strange, sinister mating rituals and succinctly quantifiable, primal fears. Through The Hellbound Heart we’re initiated and inducted into the Order of the Gash, and made to look at these people from the inside out with little feeling of empathy, and an omniscient understanding of what makes these people tick. The Hellbound Heart’s lack of character and narrative complexity isn’t a result of novice writing or a lack of interest from its creator, but a thought-experiment that allows us to gain a faint impression of what it feels like to be part of a horror story from a seat of beauty in which we can recognize form. Yet in that faintness, in the very consideration of our vastness contrasted by these character sketches trapped within the confines of these pages, we are subjected to the sublime.
In the film, we as viewer are invited closer—an arguably inherent aspect of the medium. In Hellraiser, the horror is given form, made concrete and aesthetically beautiful. Form by its very nature speaks to the existence of God, according to Burke, and is thus calming. In this physical expression of The Hellbound Heart, Hellraiser is perhaps a less sublime experience for us the viewer. Yet, the film, in terms of the properties of what we see, and not the material on which it was made and distributed on, has no physical form. It is still a fictional expression of fear, determined by perception and mayhaps sublime after all. The answers here are less important than the meditation of Barker’s work, and its ability as both novel and film to move in and out of a sublime state.
Staying true to the source, Hellraiser is both intimate and infinite, mingling upper-middle class horniness with cosmic demons. It sounds ridiculous but it is deeply grounded in our fragile emotional state and sexual needs. Frank Cotton’s (Sean Chapman) unquenchable hedonism leads him a puzzle box which, through opening a doorway, unleashes the Cenobites who promise the ultimate in pleasure, or as Frank later comes to realize, “pain and pleasure, indivisible.” The issue of pain and pleasure here all comes down to perception, which in broad terms, is what all horror comes down to. It is this very perception that gives the genre its diversity, and its ability find some crevice of the soul in every viewer through which to seep into. To experience horror in its fictional state isn’t simply about being scared. It’s about temporarily giving oneself over to another’s perception of awe and terror. Hellraiser is perhaps the only film other than 2008’s Martyrs to so completely exist as a dissertation on the very nature of our fascination with the power of horror as a form transcendence. Pinhead describes himself and his fellow cenobites as “explorers in the further reaches of experience. Demons to some. Angels to others.” They are defined by perception, and Frank caring not what they are and only in what they can provide, sees them as a means to an end-something quantifiable. His mistake is thinking that the Cenobites definitions of pleasure and pain is the same as our earthly ones.
Julia (Clare Higgins) isn’t plagued by hedonism, but she is beset by guiltless thoughts of her years prior affair with her husband’s brother, Frank. When Frank is given the means for rebirth through his brother’s blood spilling on the floor where he spilled his semen, he returns a monster- a man sized fetus developing in a womb of stale domestic air. Yet, Julia doesn’t perceive him as such, instead fancying herself in a kind of Gothic romance with Frank as her Heathcliff who will be hers in time. This blend of terror and romance, forms the very bones of the horror genre, and speaks to its inherent sublime nature. Julia is seduced by the promise of sex with equal satisfaction to the promise of death, “He spoke of both dancing and death with equal nonchalance, as though one carried as little significance as the other. It calmed her, hearing him talk that way.” Yet, one is inevitable, while the other merely exists as an idea, given damp weight by Frank’s manipulations. Julia too willingly, and too eagerly agrees to kill unsuspecting men in a blood rite that allows Frank to grow stronger over the course of weeks. Much of the novel, consists of Julia’s murders, and Frank’s ravenous feedings, in a grotesque play of domestic life all in the service of a promised, future sexual release. It is perception that drives Julia’s heart downward and ultimately leads her to provide Frank with her husband’s skin to wear in her final act as hellbound homemaker
Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) faces a similar predicament, a kind of sublime fear that’s equally grounded. In the novel, she pines after Rory, to no avail. The history of their relationship is never explored or explained. Kirsty merely exists another figure of longing, her entire personality defined by her timeless unrequitedness. In the film, Kirsty is given a bit more gumption as the proto-typical daughter figure, whose relationship with Julia is presented as fairy-tale like, with Kirsty is would-be princess trying to free her father from the machinations of an evil stepmother. But she never tries too hard, never sets a deadline for this expectant freedom, instead allowing the fact that Julia makes her father happy, and thus endures with the hope that her father will eventually see Julia for what she is. There’s an emotional sadomasochism to both Kirsty and Julia, and even Rory (Larry) in his limited awareness, where these characters insist of self-flagellation despite their better interests. As Frank says, “some things have to be endured and that’s what makes the pleasure so sweet,” and both Kirsty and Julia become the embodiments of endurance, each imagining pleasures that will never come.
Bruce Springsteen sang, “everybody’s got a hungry heart.” What is Barker’s tale if not one of hungry hearts, in which none are fed? Unfilled love, vast and without form is perhaps the most sublime concept of all–a pleasure found in the chase and a pain found in the rebuke of that connection. Frank, ever a seeker of the sublime, tires of Julia once he realizes the chase has ended that he has her heart. Thus, he pines for Kirsty, for her innocence and lack of experience and renews his chance, his sublime dash. The film plays up the creepy uncle factor in Frank’s lurid interest in Kirsty, but the novel sees Frank aim for a corruption of the spirit that is explored in the language or rape. The experience necessarily changes Kirsty, introduces her to another level of the sublime, setting her on a path of vengeance: “she would find the thing that had torn her and tormented her, and make him feel the powerlessness that she had suffered. She would watch him squirm. More, she would enjoy it. Pain had made a sadist of her.” In a deal made with the Cenobites in exchange for Frank, Kirsty manages to remove herself from the chase, and escape from the suffering they had planned for her.
Julia, ever-unable to see Frank as the monster he is, becomes ensnared by the Cenobites, taken as compensation along with her one-time lover. Ultimately, Julia descends, while Kirsty transcends, both through the power of Angels-cum-demons. While Kirsty contemplates resurrecting the chase (“Jesus wept”), pining after Rory in whatever afterlife or dimensional place Frank cursed him to she instead chooses to “not grieve too deeply, for fear that the mending of broken hearts be a puzzle neither wit nor time had the skill to solve.” Kirsty becomes unbound from this hellish journey by her refusal to make good on Frank’s promise of resurrection (at least until the film’s sequel), and in the end is perhaps allowed to find some beauty, some concrete form to ground her. Hellraiser is a psycho-sexual nightmare dreamt under the confines of time and the sublime, a sinister mating ritual indeed.
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