Few storytellers and filmmakers can truly claim to be an overnight success, but Clive Barker is one of them. Even Stephen King sold a lot of short stories to stay afloat before the publication of Carrie, which took a little while to truly start selling. But Clive Barker became a prominent new voice in horror the moment he stepped on the screen. The short stories in the Books of Blood collections, all published at once, took the genre by storm and they were the first stories he had ever published. It’s true that he had been working for years on the stage with the Dog Company, a theatre group consisting of several friends who would prove to be integral to his creative career later on but Barker came out of nowhere with a voice that nobody else had, giving horror fiction a landscape that was fantastical, visceral, disgusting and beautiful all at the same time. It only stands to reason that people wanted more of that right away.
The success of the fiction led to feature adaptations, both of which were small and distributed through Charlie Band’s Empire Pictures and neither of which Barker was remotely happy with. Both Rawhead Rex and Transmutations have their fans, and certainly have their value, but they were far from what Barker imagined especially from his first experiences as a screenwriter. So when the opportunity came to direct, he leapt on it. Though he had never worked with a budget, Barker had made experimental short films with friends in his university days, some of which have become available over the years, showing the DNA for what would eventually become Hellraiser. Teaming with producer Christopher Figg, Barker chose to adapt a novella he’d been working on titled The Hellbound Heart, simply because of the budgetary reason that the action was mostly confined to a single house.
And the result of that decision was a directorial debut that showed a powerful and singular vision, one that was referred to as recently as this year by genre guru Joe Bob Briggs as probably the best horror film of the 1980s. By that point in the decade, the slasher cycle had run its course and A Nightmare on Elm Street had pushed the genre in an FX-driven, more fantastical and tongue-in-cheek direction. Hellraiser offers all of the fantastical creature effects expected of the time, but it also goes a step further, introducing viewers to another world full of macabre visions that only Barker could create. Instead of taking the expected approach toward humor, he treated the material seriously—though not without a few well-placed gags—and created, as the poster promised, an experience beyond the limits.
But what truly makes Hellraiser brilliant is that we only glimpse the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the burgeoning mythology in the original film. The Cotton family is, for the most part, pretty whitebread. Larry in particular is a man of old-fashioned tastes and values, and Julia tries to play the part of the loving housewife as best as she can. Even though the house is a mess when they arrive, even though it’s clear that Larry’s hedonistic brother Frank has been squatting there, it’s Larry’s decision to pretty much ignore all of that and get to cleaning it up as soon as he can. After all, he’s a traditionalist and the black sheep of the family is best not talked about.
The whole family dynamic, from the parental roles to the happy marriage, is of course a lie. And this is beautifully represented right from the initial premise, in that this façade of yuppie lifestyle has a world of unrepressed sadomasochism lurking just on the other side of the wall. Beyond the confines of the house, through the walls and under the floorboards, are sights that ultimately show the distinction between Larry and Julia, as one of them could only perceive these visions as unimaginably grotesque horrors while Julia ultimately sees herself reflected in glistening muscle of Frank’s skinless face and the punctured folds of the Cenobites’ flesh.
Hellraiser is very much a movie about sexuality, about obsession and fetishization, and these things manifest very differently for each character. For Julia, it’s most obvious and it is the thing that drives the plot. Her marriage is a hapless lie, she’s completely unfulfilled and daydreaming of her one truly amazing sexual encounter: sleeping with her husband’s brother on the eve of her wedding. There are so many levels to Julia’s obsession, which is not just with Frank, but with the fact that he represents everything that she does not have with Larry. Julia’s marriage to Larry seems driven by the promise of a certain kind of lifestyle, but it forces her into a fake and joyless partnership. Larry is, as far as we can tell, the very definition of vanilla. And Julia wants everything but the normalcy of his touch. She wants to hurt and be hurt, to take and be taken, sex that’s violent in its rawness. Ultimately, that’s what Hellraiser is all about. It’s the story of a woman who wants passion in her life to the point that she’s willing to kill for it. Repeatedly.
Frank, at first glance, seems to be the perfect partner for Julia. He’s a literal monster, the skin has been stripped away to show a grotesque creature underneath, guiding Julia into realizing just how much of a monster she has the potential to become. There’s something in the partnership of a beautiful woman and a skinless fiend that echoes everything from Beauty and the Beast to The Shape of Water. But, as is revealed by the end, the relationship isn’t exactly healthy. Frank is in some ways the exact opposite of Julia.
This was a man who was defined by obsession, who’d tried his hand at every kind of kink and fetish in his pursuit of pleasure to the point that he had become desensitized to absolutely all of it. The hunger that drives Julia is probably something he would kill to have back, but instead the hunger that drives him now is literal. Frank, once a hedonist of the highest order, has been cursed to become a monster acting primarily out of practicality. He needs blood to build himself back to human form. For Julia, that’s a very practical need as well, but it only fuels her obsession and sexuality. She wants to put skin back on his dick and if she has to kill to get a better fuck than Larry then by God, she’ll do it.
Naturally, we find Larry on the other end of the spectrum. Of the three, he’s obviously the most boring, but he’s also the most comfortable with it. Larry’s comfort zone is normalcy, however insincere it might be. It’s hard to gauge whether he actually understands just how unhappy Julia is in this marriage. When he meets Kirsty in the restaurant, he makes it clear that he knows something is bothering her but he doesn’t remotely understand what it is. Part of that is of course due to the secret of her infidelity, something that even in his cluelessness he wouldn’t think to be suspicious of, considering the fact that the wedding is assumed to be the one and only time that Julia and Frank had met.
But there’s a great deal of honesty when he says that whatever she’s going through is “completely beyond me.” It is and he is at least self-aware enough to be honest about that. Whatever passion is driving her, it’s something he could never really hope to understand.
Of course, tying all of these elements together, we’ve got our heroine, Kirsty. She sees everything in Larry that Julia doesn’t, in a way that is almost incestuous, as many have pointed out over time. This is largely a result of the change from book to movie, as Kirsty was a friend of Larry’s (named Rory) in Hellbound Heart before becoming his daughter in the movie. It makes more sense, as Kirsty was an outsider in the book and the movie allows the film to revolve around the deconstruction of a single family. But it’s also easier to buy Kirsty’s undying devotion to Larry if he is her father, rather than trying to convince an audience that anyone would be that romantically devoted to him.
This change also allows for a fairy tale dynamic that is greatly expanded on in the sequel, with Julia stepping into a wicked stepmother role. Kirsty’s devotion to her father is not just born from her love of him, but particularly from a need to protect him from her. This protectiveness is made clear very early on and it only continues throughout the feature. Kirsty is always confrontational with Julia, even when she’s trying to be nice, because she’s perceptive in a way Larry just isn’t. She can see the kind of person that Julia truly is and likely has seen this for some time.
In general, everyone in the film fetishizes family to some degree. Larry is the most obvious, as he’s trying to keep the closest thing to the notion of a nuclear family intact. He wants a doting wife and a loving daughter and does his best to believe he has that. Those things are all Larry needs to be content. Even Julia fetishizes this idea of family for the normalcy and lifestyle it provides for her, quickly shedding that fixation once Frank comes back into her life. But even after that, Julia clings to notions of a relationship that are not that different from what she had with Larry, only with better sex. She still wants a monogamous relationship with Frank, she clings to a projected idea that they belong to each other, something Frank is more than happy to feed her as long as she’ll do what he needs.
Even Frank fetishizes family, perhaps more than any of the others, even if it’s not necessarily as obvious. In part, his relationship with Julia in the film is born out of necessity, but it stems from the decision he made to sleep with his brother’s fiancee on the eve of the wedding. There’s a clear envy, even a pissing contest, between Frank and Larry that’s incredibly obvious even if they never share a single scene together. Frank might condescend Larry, but he’s clearly envious of the structure that his brother is able to maintain. Frank appears to have always wanted Larry’s life, which makes everything he does in the third act so important. He literally gets his wish, stepping into his brother’s skin and taking that life for himself.
More than that, though, Frank has an underlying need to dominate the Cotton family. It’s not just about forcing Larry out, but obviously with sleeping with Julia at the wedding–let alone after his escape from Hell–and “taking” her for himself. Frank attempts to twistedly establish himself as the dominant figure in the Cotton clan, to the point that he even threatens to rape his niece, Kirsty. While he watches her through the window as she approaches the house, Frank only starts to act predatory as soon as he realizes who she is. His persistent phrasing as he chases her (“Come to Daddy” and “It’s Uncle Frank” being fine examples) are not just predatory. They’re very specific things to say. Frank takes these notions to their most perverse extremes, because he doesn’t just fetishize family, he fetishizes incest. It defines a lot of his choices in the film, almost all of them, even.
Kirsty fetishizes family in a different, subtler way. While not remotely as overtly incestuous as Frank, her relationship with her father is much closer than her relationship with her boyfriend. But it’s not necessarily romantic, either. If anything, it’s born out of a need to still fulfill her role as daughter. Smart and resourceful as she is, Kirsty is sort of at the crossroads of becoming an adult. She’s taken an apartment, something Larry is surprised by, because it’s somehow just assumed that his grown daughter would be living at home. Kirsty is very much an adult when it comes to everything but Larry, still calling him “daddy,” which Frank takes the opportunity to twist. It’s really only when Larry is gruesomely taken out of the equation that Kirsty is able to come into her own.
When it comes to sexuality, Kirsty is a little harder to define, if only because she’s not as honest with herself about it as many of the other characters, but it is something that is hinted at throughout the franchise. If anything, she’s the combination of all of the above characters and their approach to sex. There’s certainly a bit of her father in Kirsty, even if she probably wouldn’t like to think about it. She teases her boyfriend Steve about his British repressiveness, and yet she makes him sleep on the floor. Yet, that hunger for something more is clearly there. She’s clever and just as ambitious as Julia and resourceful as Frank, even if these things don’t ultimately manifest in a sexual way.
But there’s an underlying notion, even a promise, that Kirsty might be just as kinky as Julia or Frank if she could bear to admit to it. Her first romantic interaction with Steve sees her impressed and excited as he nearly puts a cigarette out on his tongue, though it’s her interactions with the Cenobites and Pinhead in particular that most make this aspect of her character clear. Kirsty solves the box in ignorance, after all, driven solely by her curiosity. It’s made clear in the sequel that that’s not necessarily a damnable offense for the Cenobites. When Tiffany solves the box in Hellbound, they make the decision not to take her, as Pinhead notes “It is not hands that call us, it is desire.” This certainly means that if they want Kirsty, it’s because they see something of that darkness in her.
It’s a notion that defines Kirsty’s interactions with the Cenobites and with Pinhead himself throughout all of her appearances in the franchise, but particularly here in the original film. Even in this one feature, there’s a mutual fascination between the two of them. The Female, the only other Cenobite with a voice, is quick to quiet Kirsty’s pleas to bargain. But it’s Pinhead who allows Kirsty to be heard and ultimately makes the decision to accept her offer. It’s Pinhead who gives her a chance, and it’s even the first time that the Lead Cenobite shows a hint of emotion in the film. He’s been monotone throughout the scene, but when Kirsty tries to bargain through her terror, to sell out Frank—an extreme oversight on their part in general—he looks totally flabbergasted.
In a film that is all about sexuality and repression and the manifestations of hidden desires, the Cenobites are obviously crucial. They’re the ultimate representations of these ideas, even if they have relatively little screen time. The Cenobites are, in the most literal sense, fetish made flesh. As they themselves say, they’re “demons to some, angels to others.” It’s made clear through the characters themselves. For Frank, they’re so far beyond what he’d expected, essentially proving that for all his talk, he may be a little more vanilla than he would like to admit. For Julia and even Kirsty, there’s more of an allure there, even if it’s masked by horror. The Cenobites are gruesome, but there’s an elegance to them. That whole idea of finding beauty in the perverse—or even simply making perversity itself beautiful—is crucial to any Clive Barker work and Hellraiser best represents that.
Sexuality runs through this film on every level, and each character has a different relationship toward sex, kink and obsession. All of those themes are always tied together, but they manifest in very different ways at times. The brilliance of Hellraiser and what makes it such an astonishing directorial debut lies in the way it is able to tie all of those elements together in a very confined space with a very small cast of characters. It appropriately feels like it could easily have been designed for the stage, and Barker’s theatre background definitely helped in bringing this to life. There are so many thematic layers to Hellraiser that could have collapsed under a lesser storyteller, but even though Barker had never made a film before he brought it together in a way only he could do and it truly became a film that only he could tell.
Few directors have ever announced themselves and their style with a debut quite like Clive Barker did with Hellraiser. Even though it’s essentially just a family drama at its core, it breaks that down on such a visceral, powerful level, establishing themes that Barker would continue to play with throughout his career.