“I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker.”
So declared reigning horror master Stephen King upon the publication of Barker’s first story collection, Books of Blood, in 1984. In the decades since Barker rose to prominence as one of the genre’s best and most innovative creators, but he’s immortalized for a specific contribution – the novella The Hellbound Heart, adapted by Barker himself into the 1987 classic Hellraiser.
Atmospheric and harrowing, brutal and beatific, Hellraiser is revered for good reason. Groundbreaking for its extreme violence, inventive effects, and sadomasochistic narrative, the imagery remains some of the most profoundly arresting in genre iconography. In the same era that birthed the slice-and-dice stylings of Freddy, Jason, and Michael rose a character-driven drama that trades cheap shocks for a haunting narrative. It sticks with you, a piercing shadow as fierce as a Cenobite’s hook. That’s because Hellraiser is, at its most stripped down, a love story; a narrative mired in emotion and choice, and the prices paid for obsessive hedonism. Even the main antagonist, Doug Bradley’s Pinhead (who gave me nightmares years before I watched), is the polar opposite of his slasher contemporaries. He’s pensive. He believes in precision. His presence is just efficacious enough to both enthrall and menace. He gives the impression of dignity.
Yet looking past what Hellraiser‘s most famous for – gruesome body horror and Bradley’s iconic performance – it shines brightest on the merit of its dual female protagonists. Much like the original A Nightmare On Elm Street, Julia and Kirsty Cotton seem to get washed away in the pop culture fervor surrounding Pinhead.
Our setting: in an ominously darkened apartment, narcissistic scumbag Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) opens a puzzle box that summons supernatural creatures known as Cenobites. They exist in an alternate dimension dedicated to “exploring” the boundaries between pleasure and pain, and anyone who opens the box is subjected to their torture. Frank imagined beautiful naked women; the surprise is on him. He’s speared with dozens of hooks and ripped to fleshy shreds.
Cut to some time later, and his brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) moves into Frank’s abandoned house with his wife Julia (Clare Higgins). Drops of Larry’s blood do some hocus pocus and rescue Frank from the Cenobite’s realm, but with the body of a walking corpse. He needs to drain life from others to restore himself, and in his quest he recruits Julia – his secret lover.
First up, this is 100% Julia’s movie. Frank kicks things off with the puzzle box, but Julia is our point of emotional contact. Before any action takes place, the film spends its first third settling into her mind: unweaving the truth of her affair with Frank, her strained marriage, the pricklingly hostile distrust of her stepdaughter, and the extent of her all-consuming, world-burning adoration for Frank. Their relationship is obsessively unhealthy, but Frank is the only place Julia feels satisfaction. Joy, even. Her sexual desires, not to mention her active craving and pursuit of them, are something to be openly celebrated with him rather than hidden beneath the guise of dutiful wife/maternal caretaker. Without Frank, and his role as catalyst for her desires, she’s miserable.
Frank may not deserve her love, but she would do anything for him. Including murder.
It’s hideous at first. Torturous. She can hardly bear to femme fatale strangers back to her house and shatter their skulls open. Covered in blood, clawed in upon herself in the bathroom, she fractures apart.
Slowly, eventually, it gets easier. It’s worth it.
Julia is, effectively, the fairy tale evil stepmother deconstructed. We understand the basis of her motivations and desires, even if we can’t condone her actions. The narrative never casts her aside as villainous or undeserving of empathy. In fact, near the climax Frank turns upon her without a second of regret and sucks her dry to fuel his own regeneration. “Nothing personal, baby,” he murmurs as she bleeds out in his arms. To Frank, she was nothing but a tool; a temporary pleasure. The loathsome hedonist who prioritized his own pleasure to the point of his own destruction also ruined the life of the woman who adored him. Man is the true monster, far more than the demonic Cenobites (big surprise).
Trapped by confines on all sides, the only way Julia knows how to grasp the happiness, acceptance, and fulfillment she wants is through desperate means. She makes the best of her limited options. In hand with Clare Higgins’s majestic, measured, towering performance (adjectives like regal, elegant, queenly come to mind – her graceful stature, the tortured blankness in her eyes, the way she coils and uncoils), Julia easily stands as one of horror’s most effective, satisfying figures.
Now we have Kirsty, stepdaughter of Julia and balls-to-wall heroine extraordinaire. Independent, crass, and fiercely quick-witted, from word one Kirsty’s clapping back at the Final Girl tropes. She’s determined to live independently on her own terms despite her father’s coddling. (Larry: “You’ve made the gesture (of moving out)…” Kirsty: “It’s not a gesture, Dad.”) She has sex with a boy she’s openly attracted to and it’s no big deal. She fights back against Frank instantly, screaming and kicking and hurling the puzzle box out the window with a blistering “You want it? FUCKING HAVE IT!” When she solves said puzzle box (not an easy feat), she makes a whip-fast deal with the Cenobites for her own life in exchange for Frank’s, despite being understandably out of her mind with sheer terror. And when the Cenobites turn on her in the finale, she screams right the hell back at them and sends them one by one back to hell with bloodthirsty fury.
A teenage girl, threatened with unimaginable torture, traumatized by the loss of her father, repeatedly outmatches omnipotent demons on the strength of her own cleverness. She solves. She bargains. She manipulates. She slaps her boyfriend’s hand away from the box, because she fucking knows how to fix it and doesn’t need help. And she does it while screaming obscenities, as most of us would. That’s my girl.
Kirsty and Julia serve as perfect, traditional mirrors of each other – good and evil, angel and demon, young and older, but they’re more similiar than they realize. They know what they want and pursue it, whether it sexual partners or plans for the future. They’re aware of the objectifying, dangerous world they move through as women. Far more broils beneath them than what’s revealed at first glance. They’re survivors, at any cost. If they had connected, maybe this entire tragedy could’ve been averted. Together, they’d be unstoppable.
But then again, they don’t need help. Their own initiative is enough.
Women In Horror is a series examining the roles of female characters in the genre. You can read all entries here.