Having gone to the limits of perversity on earth, Frank Cotton is looking for bigger thrills in other dimensions.
That is until he discovers a small wooden box which is said can satisfy his cravings in unimaginable ways. For it is a doorway to a Hell filled with sadomasochistic demons. Ageless experts in the art of pleasure and pain. But after being tortured and torn in another dimension, Frank wants out. Coincidentally, Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson, Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins, Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg, 2018) move into the family abode – a three-story London townhouse infested with maggots and religious paraphernalia – and Julia is quickly rifling through Franks leftover possessions, and reminiscing about the illicit affair they once had. Larry promptly gouges his hand, and sets in motion the resurrection of his brother, leaving Julia to rekindle the relationship with her undead, skinless lover. If an oozing skeleton in the attic isn’t your cup of tea, the ensuing sixty minutes will certainly make you drop your digestive. It’s all very bloody, slimy and awfully good fun!
Barker’s ‘The Hellbound Heart’ originally appeared in Night Visions (1984-91), a collection of short stories edited by George R.R. Martin with contributions – alongside Barker – from Ramsey Campbell and Lisa Tuttle. Barker had already carved a name for himself via his Books of Blood (1984-85), even adapting two of the short stories for the screen, but as he was unhappy with the final results (the cult favourite Rawhead Rex (George Pavlou, 1986) and the lesser-known Underworld (George Pavlou, 1985), he elected to direct his own movie based on ‘The Hellbound Heart’. However, Barker needed capitol. Virgin Films were originally interested but backed out due to content, so Producer Christopher Figg took the project to New World, successfully acquiring £900,000 under the agreement that a known American actor would be cast in a lead role. Andrew Robinson was hired as inadequate husband Larry Cotton, alongside stage actor Clare Higgins as Julia. Higgins had turned down the role twice because of her dislike for horror, but after a meeting with Barker was eventually won over – although she admits to never watching the entirety of the film.
Shot mostly in Dollis Hill Lane, Northwest London (named 55 Lodovico Street in the movie and recently turned into flats) Barker began to translate his book to the screen on an incredibly small budget. But the road to success was often uncertain. Barker was a first-time director, and the material was especially strong for the time. Many elements from the book were either toned down or altered, including diluting much of the sexual aspect and Kirsty becoming Larry’s (Rory in the book) daughter as opposed to close friend. But New World executives were pleasantly surprised. The footage they were seeing instilled enough confidence in the project to increase the budget and beef up a major FX sequence – the rebirth of Frank. Originally Frank’s return was described in the original script as follows:
“We move towards the blood on the floor. As we watch, it begins to disappear, as if being absorbed by the room. We pan up to the wall. The plaster is not quite smooth; indeed, it now begins to grow restless, and cracks. Something begins to move in the wall …”
Another two weeks were added, allowing Bob Keen and Geoff Portass of Image Animation to create a sequence which stopped audiences dead. Nails spew from floorboards and panicked rats scramble nearby as Frank’s gooey corpse regenerates from beneath. Although played by Sean Chapman as a leering deviant in human form, when a slimy corpse was needed, Oliver Smith donned the extreme makeup. Frank’s living corpse is an anatomically correct dripping mess, showcasing the veins, muscles and nerves of the skinless human form. Rick Baker is rightly applauded for his jaw-dropping transformation of man to wolf in An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981), but it’s indisputable that Image Animation’s rebirth of Frank should stand alongside Baker’s as one of the most impressive practical effects ever created. Even more impressive is that the majority of the sequence was created with wax, condoms and KY jelly!
But dripping skeletons and bludgeoned victims are in stark contrast to the cold surgical look of the Cenobites. Interestingly, Doug Bradley, who worked with Barker on short films Salome and The Forbidden (1973) – later adapted into Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992) – was offered the choice of two roles. One of the removal men seen at the beginning of the film, or the Lead Cenobite, comprising of a heavy makeup job. Luckily for us, Bradley elected to inhabit the role of the Prince of Hell, and an iconic character was born. Although Bradley would brave many hours in the makeup chair, two of the cenobite actors would endure a far more horrifying experience. Simon Bamford and Nicolas Vince (as Butterball and Chatterer respectively) both had such extensive makeups, they were not rendered deaf, but blind too! This meant that their spoken lines were given to Bradley and Grace Kirby’s Female Cenobite, as they were the only ones who could speak in makeup.
Once Hellraiser was in the can, a few more changes were made. Barker had originally wanted Coil to provide the soundtrack – they recorded demos of most of it – but were replaced by A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985) composer Christopher Young. As the movie’s appeal grew, producers decided to make the movie even more marketable to American audiences. This meant rather clumsily dubbing the majority of British actors, creating a jarring feeling to what is very much an English production in style and location. Although the real issues were with the sex and violence contained throughout the film. Julia and Frank’s initial sex scene had the more risqué elements removed and many of the murders were cut down to appease censors. One male victim had the number of hammer blows cut down from a barrage of many to almost none. The second murder in which the victim is seen in his underwear was shot alternatively with the victim naked (as described in the script), and a couple of other gory shots were shortened – although some of these scenes can be seen in the opening moments of Hellbound: Hellraiser II (Tony Randell, 1988). Once producers were happy with the finished product and had successfully won an R Rating, Hellraiser was submitted to the British censors. Their biggest concern was the rat cutting scene, and it was almost removed on behest of their concerns about animal cruelty. Only after the rat effect was physically demonstrated, the sequence was allowed to stay.
Shot under the title Sadomasochists from Beyond the Grave as producers disliked The Hellbound Heart, Barker and New World compromised – and with a quote from Stephen King on the poster, ‘I have seen the future of horror… His name is Clive Barker…’ – the catchily-titled Hellraiser was released to mixed reviews in the UK on the 11th September 1987.
Hellraiser began as a low budget British shocker and ended up as a sprawling ten film series which sadly didn’t represent the original archetype the series began with. Whatever your opinion of the sequels, however, you can’t deny that the rudimental foundation that was created by Barker some 34 years ago is still going strong. A new Hellraiser remake is currently in development from Spyglass Media as well as an unrelated HBO TV series, so we could see the return of the dysfunctional Cotton family along with our favourite pin cushion sooner than you think.