Told you I’d get to Hellraiser later.
I’ve tried to avoid too many ‘Horror Classics’ on this list if only because they’re a bit derivative to talk about: everyone knows that Nightmare on Elm Street is black-comedy, Halloween is minimalist and The Shining is… The Shining. I’m not convinced there’s anything I can say about The Thing that haven’t heard a thousand times (the effects!). If you can find it on AMC, it’s probably not on this list.
Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is a bit different.
It’s different because Clive Barker himself is different, and along with writing the original novel they let him direct and write the screenplay for Hellraiser as well, with (relatively) minimal studio interference. Hellraiser is Barker’s novel The Hellbound Heart, more or less as he himself wanted to see it – a hat-trick I’m not sure has been repeated elsewhere in Horror history. They couldn’t have given it to a more unique person.
The history of Horror as a medium is intensely Queer: from Sheridan Le Fanu and Carmilla through Anne Rice and… every character in Anne Rice novels, the transgressive notion of Queerness was encoded through Horror to provide a safe-space to discuss these ideas. For a cheap example, look at the stereotype of the Vampire, think about the way Transgression, as a central theme, is pivotal to a work like Dracula. Or Buffy. While Horror’s relationship to the actual Queer Community hasn’t always been rosy (what’s up, bury-your-gays trope), the medium itself has been a hotbed of Queer artists for basically forever.
Enter Clive Barker and his Books of Blood.
Barker is a Gay man and a former sex-worker in the Gay community. He’s very open about how this informs his writing, as he is about all aspects of his sexuality: anyone who’s seen his artwork or read any of his many short stories will realize this immediately. The hallmarks of a Clive Barker story are intense, visceral descriptions of gore and disfiguration, the exploration of consent and bodies-as-objects, the desecration of the soul, taboo sex and… Romance. He is interested in the dissolution of love and the ways obsessive, manipulative people corrode each other, and he writes these ideas into grandiose Body Horror. He’s a remarkably subtle writer, somehow, and it’s what makes him such an enduring figure. There’s simply no one like Clive.
But back to Hellraiser.
Hellraiser is a film about obsession and abuse. It’s about the taboo of a secret tryst, and a former lover who returns in the night to upend a happy home. It’s about the reward for infidelity, and the line between pleasure and suffering – a line crossed so frequently that it rips open a hole in space and time and summons the patron saints of sadomasochism out of hell to tear apart your mom’s weird new boyfriend.
I’m not about to get into plot details, but every part of Barker’s fixation on obsession comes into play in Hellraiser. It’s the rare horror film where you can see directly through the metaphor, and that makes it even more frightening. Hellraiser would work without anything supernatural occurring at all. For much of it, nothing really does. The demon not-named-Pinhead, when he finally does show up, doesn’t really do anything because he doesn’t have to: the damage has already been done.
Even 33 years later, Hellraiser remains one of the most bizarre and gripping horror films I’ve ever seen. Part of this is because a full half of the film isn’t a horror at all, but a very morbid and disturbing thriller. There’s a plucky teen protagonist and a spooky, tightly-shot house for all the action, but the true terror is in the interactions between the adults, the adultery, and one family’s painfully-slow descent into hell. By the time all the special effects and the blood do show up, they’re there to punctuate the horror of the scene, not to establish it. Barker’s done that all on his own.
If it sounds like a bawdy romance novel, it kind of is, and that’s a huge part of Clive Barker’s charm. Every part of his writing is alive in every other part – the horror scenes have shades of romance, and the romantic scenes are woozy, never safe from horror themselves. Some of the only cuts the studios made to Hellraiser were to remove the sex and accentuate the violence – totally ignoring what makes Hellraiser so horrifying in the first place.
As always, the demons aren’t the monsters.