Question: why is Lemarchand’s puzzle box like the foot injury plantar fasciitis? Because it’ll tear your sole apart. No joke: I’m writing this whilst rolling a golf ball under my foot, and it hurts. Someone else who knows about pain is Pinhead. It’s nearly Halloween, it’s Book Versus Film time, so shall we meet him? He has such sights to show us.
Rory and Julia move into Rory’s deceased grandmother’s house. He desperately wants to save their marriage, but doesn’t realise she wants his missing brother Frank, with whom she had an affair shortly before marrying Rory. But neither of them know Frank died in that house the previous year, after solving Lemarchand’s puzzle box and opening a gate to Hell. A gate that opens both ways…
Yes, technically it’s a novella, but ‘Novella Versus Film’ sounds as bad as going into a dark cellar alone on the night Michael Myers hits town, so I’m calling it a book.
Back in the 80s, when horror novels were huge, a young Liverpudlian playwright shook up the genre with his short story collections, The Books of Blood. Clive Barker weaved tales of gore, sex, and sadomasochism, and they sold bucketloads. When one of the stories (Rawhead Rex) and another original screenplay (Underworld – not the vampire flick) were turned into substandard films, Barker decided he’d try directing himself.
The problem was, he needed a ‘cheap’ story to get any studio money.
Having linked up with first-time producer Christopher Figg, Barker set about crafting a story that would hopefully get a modest budget of $1 million. Together, they outlined one set in a house, with four main characters. Barker had been fascinated by puzzle boxes since his grandfather, a ship’s cook, brought some back from the Far East, so that went into the mix too. To ensure the story worked he wrote it as a novella, which also completed a prior commitment to American publishers Dark Harvest, for 30,000-words to appear in their Night Visions 3 anthology. And so, into the world came The Hellbound Heart.
Nice guy Rory knows there are problems in his marriage to Julia, but believes it’s nothing that can’t be fixed. However, he doesn’t know his best friend Kirsty has a crush on him, and as for his wife… Married to a man she does not love, and lusting for a lover who was ambivalent towards her, Julia is even more tortured than the poor fools who open the puzzle box. Since her affair with Frank, she sees how unfulfilling her life has become. Surprisingly, it is Julia rather than Rory who is our protagonist, giving this a much darker tone.
Frank is Rory’s older brother, and as children they were inseparable until the teenage years made one a dutiful son and the other a pariah. A man who takes what he wants, Frank lives only for self-gratification, so when he hears of a puzzle box that promises ultimate pleasures he is hell-bent on finding it. At the opposite end of the confidence scale is Kirsty, who has secretly loved her best friend Rory for years. Despite knowing Julia is bad news, she loyally tries to help him save his marriage. Kirsty is the closest the book has to a heroine, with Frank the antagonist – more so even than the creatures he summons with the box.
Why the Book Works
The theme – desire – is epitomised by the four main characters, and in all cases it is unfulfilled. Kirsty loves Rory, but he isn’t even aware of it. Rory loves Julia, who does not feel the same about him. Julia loves Frank, but he yearns only for extreme pleasures. Three of the four at various points have what they want – and find it wanting – so eventually pay the ultimate price. By the end, only Kirsty survives. Be careful what you wish for…
Barker clearly loves telling a Faustian tale: his earlier short film The Forbidden, and his first novel The Damnation Game are two further examples. The characters are well fleshed out, despite the short wordcount, and their interweaving relationships – the unrequited love, the secrets, the resentments – are brilliantly realised. Barker describes it as a romance rather than a horror story, with that Hellbound heart of the title belonging to Julia, but Mills & Boon this ain’t. For one thing, people don’t get skinned alive in those books. For another, there aren’t any Cenobites.
Ah, the Cenobites. Inspired by visits to New York S&M clubs, where Barker watched people being pierced for fun, they are introduced here as theologians of the Order of the Gash. Two are recognisable in the film: the Chatterer (third Cenobite here) and Pinhead (second Cenobite), and like their big-screen versions, they barely feature. Of the four we meet in the opening chapter, three are so mutilated their gender is unidentified, and Pinhead is one of them. Some claim the book version is female (a belief once again doing the rounds due to the casting of trans actress Jamie Clayton in a 2022, Barker-produced, reboot) but that’s not strictly accurate. Though described as having “the voice of an excited girl”, our unnamed character (the name ‘Pinhead’ comes later) is referred to as ‘it’ throughout. Only the fourth Cenobite is identified as female, but her startling appearance – not to mention an impressive collection of 20 severed tongues – ensures she never makes it to the screen.
Their summoning has more overt religious connotations here, including such placatory offerings as a jug of urine and a plate of doves’ heads (presumably the food on the return to Hell is worse than British Rail). Frank is twice given the option to back out. Failure to see sense results in all his senses being heightened – in one of the book’s best passages – preparing him for what follows. And judging by the rotting heads that final Cenobite is sat on, what follows will hurt.
The book’s biggest strength is Barker’s writing. At times almost poetic, it’s every bit as emotional, attractive and repulsive as his characters’ desires. There are hints too of other ‘charts’ that lead to the Cenobites (a coded theological work in the Vatican, an origami sculpture once owned by the Marquis de Sade) along with that puzzle box, implying a bigger world beyond this story’s limits. Barker would write a final sequel novel in 2015, The Scarlet Gospels, focusing on Pinhead – now called the Hell Priest – yet there still feels like we have much more to explore.
But of course, all this was just a dry run to what came next …
Roger Corman’s former production company New World gave Barker $900,000 to make his movie. He wrote the screenplay, and after a title change to Hellraiser (suggested by producer Figg), filming began in London, in September 1986.
For Julia, Barker cast Clare Higgins. Played as a more sympathetic character (we’re actually on her side when she leads the first victim to his death), Julia understands what she’s doing is wrong but cannot stop herself. It’s a great performance – and watching as she becomes more glamorous with each kill is fun too.
Rory, now called Larry, has changed from British to American, to help US sales. The part went to Andrew Robinson, who would become famous a few years later as the wily Cardassian tailor Garak in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but was already known for a role that almost ended his film career: the Scorpio killer in Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (he was so convincing, many industry people were afraid to meet him). The contrast between nice Larry and the finale’s evil version was crucial, and Robinson is perfect.
Rounding off the main cast are Sean Chapman as alpha-male Frank (whose British accent would later be dubbed over), and Ashley Lawrence as Kirsty. She is also American, because her character is now Larry’s daughter from a previous marriage. This change works well – allowing Kirsty to be a more proactive heroine – and introducing a fairy-tale element, with the innocent daughter, the gullible father, and the wicked stepmother.
All give great performances, but though franchise plans were to focus on Julia, had Higgins not left after Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, another character, who barely features, was about to become its figurehead. Pinhead: elegant, eloquent, punkish and priestly – and listed in the credits as Lead Cenobite (the Pinhead name officially arrives in the second film’s credits) – he is brilliantly played by Barker’s schoolfriend Doug Bradley. Unfortunately, the studio did not agree.
Why the Film Works
It eschewed the comedic horror of the time – the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, The Lost Boys, the Evil Dead movies, etc – but that scared New World, so they sent production executive Tony Randel to fix what wasn’t broken, including Pinhead. They wanted him either silent (like Jason Vorhees) or wisecracking (like Freddy Kruger). Barker refused, Randel sided with him, and would eventually become Barker’s choice to direct the sequel.
All the characters are improved, but Kirsty most of all (though she has cinema’s crappest boyfriend, whose talents stretch to swallowing lit cigarettes). In an extended finale that fits so well it’s surprising this wasn’t in the book, Kirsty defeats the Cenobites by reversing the moves that opened the box, thereby closing it. And the coda, with the box returned to the person who first sold it to Frank, bringing the story full circle, also guaranteed sequels.
The make-up effects are stunning. Designed by Bob Keen (who helped create Jabba the Hutt), Skinned Frank and the Cenobites are impossible to forget. And Pinhead – a throwback to Christopher Lee’s Dracula rather than snarky 80s bogeymen – is the best horror villain in years.
Though not a horror-comedy, Hellraiser has a vein of humour so black many people miss it entirely: such as Julia reliving her seduction by Frank as Larry gouges his hand open (the incident that precipitates Frank’s rebirth) whilst carrying the marital bed upstairs.
And finally, Christopher Young’s score (which replaced music by experimental band Coil) is so rich and atmospheric it adds a genuine sense of grandeur.
Release and Reception
It’s difficult to know how The Hellbound Heart was received when published in November 1986, with it being in an anthology (it finally became a standalone title in 1991), so we’ve only got Hellraiser to go on. Reviews could be divided between those who were disgusted by the S&M overtones and gore, and those who weren’t. And for those who weren’t, the film was a breath of fresh air in a genre going stale. Many praised it for being serious, intelligent, morally complex, and for including deaths that actually advanced the plot rather than being mere titillation.
Stephen King’s famous quote, anointing Clive Barker as the future of horror, was used everywhere, alongside images of Pinhead – frequently without his black contact lenses! Opening in September 1987, Hellraiser grossed $14.5 million, being the most successful ‘foreign’ film in many territories, and a very healthy return for New World’s investment. A sequel was already greenlit, which led to ten films in all (as of 2021), with a Barker-produced reboot due next year.
Demons to Some, Angels to Others: But which Triumphs?
Whichever one comes out on top, the real winner is Clive Barker. He proved he could direct horror as well as write it, and like his books the film remains hugely influential.
The book works better with the world it creates. Barker offers details that linger long after the last page (what are the ‘birds’ Frank sees when opening the gate to Hell?), but it’s the other modes of summoning the Cenobites – the Vatican code and the Marquis’s origami – that really intrigue. Lemarchand’s puzzle box / the Lament Configuration box (to use its film name) is a thing of beauty, but the sequels devalue it by overuse. Those other roads to Hell are worth further exploration, either in print or perhaps an anthology television show.
Also, the book is clearly a British horror story but New World relocated the film to America once filming wrapped, necessitating some poor dubbing for several characters (including Frank and Kirsty’s boyfriend). Many fans thought the transatlantic move happened with Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, but it began here; however, leaving aside the sight of an InterCity train, there’s still no disguising those British price signs in the pet shop scene!
The film benefits from the book road-testing the premise, allowing Barker to smooth over wrinkles and flesh out characters. Because the book explains everything sequentially, we know what the box and Cenobites are in the opening chapter, but the film holds such explanations back, prolonging the mystery. Also, the book’s Frank is given the option to back out by the Cenobites yet Kirsty is not, which is inconsistent.
But what finally separates the two is the final act. The book’s Kirsty is allowed to go free by the Cenobites – anti-climactic as she doesn’t really earn this escape – yet in the film she is forced to fight for her life and freedom. It’s more satisfying, and brings to the story a proper feeling of closure.
So, the puzzle is solved: Hellraiser the film is the winner!
What do you think?
BIO: Nick Jackson likes books, films, and puzzles. He does not much like pain, but as he couldn’t even solve two sides of a Rubik’s Cube, there’s little danger he’ll be Hellbound any time soon. He has written numerous Book V Films for Lucy, and several published short stories. His latest story will appear in Everyday Kindness, a charity anthology being published on World Kindness Day, 13th November 2021.