“What’s your pleasure?” Hellraiser, novelist Clive Barker’s gamey, viscous breakthrough into horror cinema, arrived at a time when neither pleasure nor pain had much to do with the genre formula. The Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises had primarily turned the state of the art into a joyless, profitable processional Night of the Lemming Dead. Worse, the fascination of collectively experienced dread and the muscularity of D.W. Griffith-inherited plot tensions were, thanks to both self-knowing predictability and Freddy Krueger’s spiritual rebirth as a homicidal Chatty Cathy, being held up as objects of ridicule. Neither series is without its respective charms: I still harbor great fondness for Jason Takes Manhattan‘s laughable attempt to get streetwise and gritty, as well as The Dream Master‘s kinetic, afternoon-sunlit set pieces. But the arrival of Barker’s humorless Cenobites had to have hit audiences-on-autopilot like a splash of cold blood to the face, at least conceptually.
Yes, the iconography of Pinhead (Doug Bradley) and his snapping, lashing hooks has settled comfortably into the realm of S&M. And yes, the Hellraiser series has devolved every bit as drastically as the Nightmare or Friday franchises. Say what you will about Freddy’s much ballyhooed battle against Jason; at least the two never stooped to taking their butchery bullshit into outer space or—Neo help us—over the World Wide Web, as Pinhead has done in what’s become a direct-to-video glut. In its original incarnation, Barker’s adaptation of his own novella The Hellbound Heart touched upon something genuinely unsettling: not just the pleasure of pain, but also the pain of sex.
In the film, firecrotch Julia Cotton (Clare Higgins) is caught in a loveless marriage to Larry (Andrew Robinson), a chronic loud talker who faints at the sight of blood. Hanging over their domestic arrangement is Larry’s brother Frank, haunting Julia figuratively (the two began a torrid affair when he arrived on their wedding day) and literally. It turns out Frank delved into the dark arts while Julia and Larry were away, opening a Satanic puzzle box and being torn asunder by the guardians of Hell, or a matte-shot approximation thereof. A few drops of Larry’s blood reanimate the pieces of Frank’s body underneath the bedroom floorboards, and soon his slimy remains inform Julia that she must bring him more blood so he can be fully regenerated and the two can be reunited in crypto-incestuous passion.
Barker’s vision cribs equally from the mythos of vampires and zombies, but Hellraiser‘s overriding ridiculousness (and nagging budgetary shortcomings) can’t disguise the fact that the movie is at least unwittingly a product of the AIDS crisis. Scenes of sexual intercourse are always marked by the presence of blood, often gelatinous, recycled, or otherwise ill-gotten. Stagnant pools of blood are constantly inhabited by teeming insects. And ultimately, Julia’s mission to gather plasma for her undead lover, man by man (all picked up in bars), results in a libidinous, walking terminal disease. It’s the voluptuous residues of Hellraiser, not a low-voiced dude with a porcupine head, that spark the fear of mortality even among those who can’t relate to Pinhead’s masochistic command that pleasure be pain and pain be pleasure.