Friday, 8 March 2013

The Hellbound Heart

In the next few days I’m hoping to catch a screening of Hellraiser, a film I have fallen out of love with it over the years. This sudden and unexpected interest in the film was prompted by my reading of The Hellbound Heart, Clive Barker’s 1986 novella which the author himself would adapt for his directorial debut. I first read The Hellbound Heart some 25 years ago and whatever memories I had of the story had long since been absorbed into Hellraiser. The novella which first appeared in the horror anthology Night Visions 3 is little more than a short story (it can be easily read in one sitting), but despite its brevity makes for a fascinating comparison with Hellraiser. Hardly surprising that the majority of the short story was retained for the film, even down to specific dialogue, but Barker managed to improve upon certain aspects of the story. In the novella, Rory Cotton (renamed Larry in the film) and Kirsty are simply good friends but in the film the ties are closer still, their relationship recast as father-daughter, later accentuating the film’s dark sexuality with Frank Cotton's incestuous desires for Kirsty, his niece. In the novella Frank and Julia's brief affair adds up to little more than some rough sex, which hardly seems motivation enough for Julia to commit murder to supply Frank with sustenance, but in the film their encounter is given much more weight in a brilliant sequence where Julia and Frank consummate the affair intercut with Larry skewering his hand on a nail, a subtle commentary on the sado-masochistic nature of Julia and Frank’s relationship, and crucially makes Julia's obsession to restore Frank more plausible. At times the film also surpasses the novella in purely visual terms, like the sequence where Frank is resurrected from the pool of Larry’s blood. In the novella this moment is not especially memorable but in the film Barker and his special effects team conjure up an astonishing tour-de-force of surreal, gloopy splatter.

The sweet suffering... a moment of exquisite pain from Hellraiser

The film doesn’t always have its own way, at times the novella wins out with sophisticated and evocative writing. The brilliant opening sequence of the novella where Frank invokes the Cenobites is heavy with ritualism, the Cenobites described in quasi-religious terms as  "theologians of the Order of the Gash", with Frank preparing for their arrival with a display of various offerings – urine, severed dove heads, sweets and flowers (the only one of the items the Cenobites accept). Barker writes:
He had worked ceaselessly in the preceding week to prepare the room for them. The bare boards had been meticulously scrubbed and strewn with petals. Upon the west wall he had set up a kind of altar to them, decorated with the kind of placatory offerings Kircher had assured him would nurture their good offices: bones, bonbons, needles. A jug of his urine-the product of seven days' collection-stood on the left of the altar, should they require some spontaneous gesture of self-defilement. On the right, a plate of doves' heads, which Kircher had also advised him to have on hand. He had left no part of the invocation ritual unobserved. No cardinal, eager for the fisherman's shoes, could have been more diligent
The Cenobites are more mysterious, less stylized, perhaps less ridiculous than their filmic counterparts (although the idea for Pinhead was more or less formed even at this early stage - "Every inch of its head had been tattooed with an intricate grid, and at every intersection of horizontal and vertical axes a jeweled pin driven through to the bone"). In the second appearance by the Cenobites in the novella and film, Kirsty strikes up a bargain to lead them to Frank, ("Oh yes. We know Frank") but the film unwisely diverges from the original story by adding a scene where Kirsty slips into another dimension and is pursued by a grotesque wall-hugging creature. It’s a moment that does much damage to the serious adult tone of the film, due in some part to some unconvincing animatronic effects. The climax of the film suffers a similar fate when the character of the sinister derelict (a character created for the film) reveals his true self as a winged monster – another ludicrous moment undone by some mediocre effects work. The novella’s climax by comparison is far more restrained and interestingly, the idea for the derelict can be traced back to a very peripheral character in the novella, the enigmatically titled Engineer. In the final scene of the novella the puzzle box is placed back in Kirsty’s hands:
As she turned away somebody collided with her. She yelped with surprise, but the huddled pedestrian was already hurrying away into the anxious murk that preceded morning. As the figure hovered on the outskirts of solidity, it glanced back, and its head flared in the gloom, a cone of white fire. It was the Engineer… Only then did she realize the purpose of the collision. Lemarchand's box had been passed back to her, and sat in her hand.
The Hellbound Heart is a grey area in the Clive Barker cannon. It's an important piece of writing - one of the author's purest works of Horror fiction, but still the novella remains one of Barker's most obscure books (it's currently out of print in the UK), paradoxically so considering the novella was the starting point for Hellraiser, Barker's signature work and a film that spawned no less than 8 sequels, inspired numerous comics, graphic novels and toy spin-offs, and introduced the world to an iconic movie monster. Whether you care or not for Hellraiser, The Hellbound Heart is highly recommended for all you seekers, sensualists and explorers in the further regions of experience.

"What's your pleasure sir?" A keeper of the puzzle box. Artwork from Clive Barker's Book of the Damned: A Hellraiser Companion (Vol. 1 1991)


  1. Hey Wes, hope you're well mate. Great piece. I feel that we share similar feelings on the film, which was a firm favourite as a youngster for me, but my love of it has seriously waned over the years - in fact the most enjoyable movies form the franchise now are the 4th and the 5th, the latter being pretty much a stand alone film in it's own right that just happens to feature a Cenobite!
    I haven't revisited Barker's writings since my early teens and I'd be interested to see what i make of them after all of these years. If it's anything like Stephen King, then maybe disappointment???
    Take it easy mate. Phil

  2. Nice work Wes, it really is a great story. I haven't read it since tracking it down after seeing the film. How many of the film's sequels did you get through before giving up? I haven't seen any since Hellraiser III, and that was one too far!

  3. Many thanks Phil, great to hear from you again dude. How's the French Experiment working out ?

    I absolutely loved Hellraiser and Hellbound when I was a kid - I remember well first seeing Hellraiser and The Fly on a VHS double-bill - this was back in the days when an 11 year old kid could get a couple of 18's from the videoshop and then step next door for a pack of cigarrettes, no questions asked... But time has not been kind to Hellraiser, it feels a little corny nowadays, and Clive Barker's attempts to make the film as commercial as possible (with those dreadful monsters) are understandable, competing with the Elm Street sequels and all, but the film suffers for it. As much as I'd be weary of a remake (amazing it hasn't happened yet), I would love to see a really dark, transgressive film of The Hellbound Heart

    Of Clive Barker's work, I'm a complete novice, the only other stuff of his I've read (many years ago) are Cabal and Weaveworld and some 50-odd pages of Imajica, before it was abandoned for some reason - it's a book I'll definitely return to at some stage, but y'know all this Barker business has given me the urge to see Nightbreed again...a film I haven't seen since it came out on video...

  4. Many thanks for the comment Mart, much appreciated. I'm the same as you, I've never seen any of the sequels beyond Hell on Earth, a film which has its moments but it's a film I haven't seen in years - despite having the film in Anchor Bay's Hellraiser boxset - I'm wondering if I'm deliberately avoiding seeing it again in case it really is as dire as some people feel it is. Having said that, I'd be interested in seeing some of these sequels if they ever end up on Syfy or The Horror Channel...

  5. Hey, Wes. Glad you're well. I really enjoyed Hellbound Heart when I read it, although for me his first volume of Books of Blood takes some beating. I thought Damnation Game was good too. After that I tuned out of Barker. I agree with your comments on Hellraiser - it has a a bit too much padding in it - that sequence with the tramp who pursues Kirsty. Do you have that new cut of Nightbreed?

  6. Hey Jon, many thanks ! I don't have the new version of Nightbreed - is this a fan edit ? At one time I heard some vague talk of a petition to release a revised version of the film and then the story went cold. But I'm intrigued...