It’s hard to say if I’m a fan of the Hellraiser franchise. Sure, the sequels are all garbage, that much we can agree on, I’m oddly compelled to revisit the 1987 film at least once a year (usually around Halloween because you know your boy gets way too into the witchery of the spooking season), I enjoy the novella, and I can even appreciate the second Hellraiser movie as a piece of over-the-top 80s exploitation – but no Hellraiser story has ever made me feel anywhere close to the emotions that I get when I think about Hellraiser.
I recently pre-ordered a collection of Hellraiser comics written by Clive Barker – I had read a lot of glowing reviews from people saying that they recaptured the essence of the franchise. The best thing since the original movie they said. The omnibus was supposed to arrive on Halloween itself – October 31st aka All Hallow’s Ween – but it was pushed back 2 weeks. My anticipation mounted even more. I couldn’t wait to finally appreciate something that fulfilled the promise of Hellraiser – I was ready for Clive Barker to take me straight to hell, no more of these weird film detours. He would be the guy to do it after all, who better than the creator of the franchise to understand and make the most of the concept right?
I suppose you can imagine where this is going. Not only did the comics have a kind of stilted, rushed feeling (maybe Barker is more used to pacing out a novel compared to writing a comic script – or maybe the episodic nature of each issue’s release caused things to unfold in a weird way), they seemed to double down on the parts of Hellraiser that didn’t work. So anyway, here we are. I’m trapped in this blog for the rest of eternity so I figure I might as well make the most of this online hell by writing out some of my thoughts.
So what makes Hellraiser good then, smart guy?
Glad you asked, internet asshole! Let’s talk about the general concept. Let’s grab our rusty hooks and strip away all the skin and get to the juicy insides of the story. I promise that’s the only time I’ll do a writerly flourish like that. OK? Cool. Deal.
The thing that hooked me (fuck, sorry, last one) was the original, inciting story of Frank from the original film and novella. He was a mega horny dude that got bored of even the freakiest sex he could find on earth, so he went to the ends of the earth to find this mythical box that was supposed to unlock feelings so unfathomable, he couldn’t even comprehend them even as a super experienced sex haver.
And then, yeah, we’ve seen the movie, he finally tracks down the box, opens it, and is shocked when instead of sexy bikini babes, he’s greeted by demon leather daddies and mistresses who then take him to hell where he’ll suffer unfathomable pain and pleasure for the rest of eternity.
It’s a brilliant concept. Think of how it differs from most horror. The villains are not evil – they just have lived so long and are so numb to feeling that they have trouble telling the difference between pain and pleasure. And the victim is not just some innocent person getting picked off – he’s getting a monkey’s paw kind of version of exactly what he wanted. You got bored and wanted to feel something new? Well you got it buddy! Sorry if it’s too much for your human brain to handle.
And the best part? Despite seeing plenty of the bad guys, we don’t know anything about them. At some point in the first movie they say they are from a different dimension. In most other contexts that would sound dumb, but it’s easy to believe. They seem almost alien. Their outfit and weird mutilation has a certain otherworldly logic to it. And it follows the golden rule of horror – what you don’t see is scariest. We see glimpses of their torture methods, but you can only imagine what kind of insane techniques they’ve come up with after doing this one specific thing for eons. Even though Frank seems like a hedonistic bastard, you still can’t help but think “damn, this dude’s soul is fucked.”
But this is where the disappointment comes in. Each subsequent piece of Hellraiser media can’t help but expand the lore of the Cenobites, and each time it does, it undercuts what makes them compelling. Even in the first movie, we get this beautiful horror setup, only for us to see a teenage Kirsty successfully bargain with and then outsmart these immortal elder demons. Then in the second, we visit their world and hmmm aahhh I guess this incomprehensible interdimensional hellscape is uhhh a spooky MC Escher maze with some Halloween spider web decorations?
Which then brings us to the comics. Instead of going the other way with it, maybe wheeling it back and restoring some dignity to the Cenobites, I was very dismayed to see that the comics take it even further. They downright humanize Pinhead right from the start.
We go back to the drab maze world of the second movie (guess that’s canon now) where we see Pinhead dealing with his demon ennui. “Ho hum” he says. “Torturing people is no fun anymore” he thinks to himself. “There’s no spark left in this BDSM relationship” he tells another Cenobite who I guess is his girlfriend – she tries to talk some sense into him but he’s made up his mind. He wants to go back to Earth.
The comic also features Kirsty on a revenge mission. It’s another inspired concept wasted – we find out that the Lament Configuration, the puzzle box that unleashes Pinhead and his Cenobite crew is only one of several different talismans on earth. Each of them unleashes a different group of hell demons with their own methods of torture. Yes. Cool.
But then we see Kirsty and a band of Cenobite survivors quickly and fairly easily destroy these horcruxes and the demons contained within. If the Cenobites had lost their mystique at the end of the first movie, they are almost completely neutered in the comics.
The scope and story kind of goes off the rails from there. We find out that Pinhead has a master plan to return to earth and weasel his way into becoming a Mega Hell Man, Kirsty becomes Lady Pinhead, and the end basically boils down to a horror version of the Marvel “blue laser in the sky is going to end the world” trope.
Definitely not to knock anyone that enjoys the comics – Clive Barker is a master storyteller and there are some great moments and it’s certainly the best the franchise has been since the 80s. But like I said, this isn’t the side of Hellraiser that gets my brain a-tinglin.
So how would you make Hellraiser good then, smart guy?
Glad you asked, online piece of shit! Hellraiser may have been the kind of concept best served to a single movie where your brain can fill in all the ideas hinted at in the margins. But if they’re insisting on making more of these movies, might as well try and make them as good as we can, huh?
Like I said before, Clive Barker knows his shit, and I think the comics already give us a real close framework to follow.
Just remove all the stuff about Pinhead and his hell sorrows and we’re practically there. After her whole family got taken down by the Cenobites, Kirsty is now on a mission to track down the box and prevent other people from having the same fate. But, as she investigates more, she finds out that the box is just the beginning. Each box has its own separate hells and demons with their own special brand of eternal suffering.
Most important of all – make them mysterious. Show as little as you possibly can. In fact, it may not even be necessary to show the demons until the very end. You could easily have the movie be about Kirsty playing detective and tracking down these other boxes. She sees the aftermath, maybe hears from people about the unfathomable shit they saw, but you only get glimpses of the true horror that the box unleashes.
And if you really want to make em scary – make em unbeatable. Remember movies like The Strangers, The Ring, Nightmare on Elm Street, No Country for Old Men, etc? They were unsettling because the good guys don’t win. The evil entity continues on their merry way, ready to hop out of your big square early-2000s TV or shoot you with that cow gun bolt thing. That’s the sort of horror ending that stays with you. The first Hellraiser film flirted with the idea of having the monster live to spook another day, but c’mon a whole gang of hell demons were outsmarted and beaten by a couple 80s-hair teens. The next person that gets caught up in all this has a decent shot of figuring out a way to get out of hell – maybe you could challenge Pinhead to a fiddle duel like in my fanfiction, I don’t know.
LISTEN, I know that obviously there are a lot of factors that make it difficult to just stick the ideal Hellraiser story on screen or on a comic page. There are deadlines and money involved that make it difficult to create a singular vision. In fact I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that a lot of the (bad) sequels started out as already-written scripts that were purchased on the cheap and then (poorly) adapted to include Pinhead and the Hellraiser crew so the studio could hold onto the rights. Also I recognize that most of the time “here’s how you REALLY do a thing” articles like these are amateur dumbasses like me thinking they could do something better than professionals, but it feels like everyone agrees the films are not living up to their potential, but I haven’t seen many ideas of how we can bring things back to their former GORY lol.
With all that in mind I will volunteer to do this for little-to-no money out of the purity and charity of my little heart. My only demand is that I am allowed to join the Writer’s Guild though so I can get my greasy little hands on those sweet sweet screeners. Also I have experience reinventing franchises that have lost their way, please see my real full-length Rush Hour 4 script where Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker go back in time to fight in the Civil War and defeat racism.
But all joking aside folks, friends, I think Hellraiser is interesting in that unlike other horror franchises that have long-since used up all their best ideas, Hellraiser’s potential seems to be still untapped. The first film is undeniably the best, but even Clive Barker admits it’s far from perfect. And the comics – while well-written and full of interesting ideas – seem to stray from the otherworldly horror of the original story.
If we’re going to keep making more of these damn things, why not put some thought into what makes Hellraiser stand apart and create something that might appeal to people outside of its die-hard (haha like you die hard in hell I guess? Sort of a play on words) fanbase?
Thank you for somehow reading this entire thing, god bless you, turns out this article was hell all along. Now you’re dead motherfuker. Bye!