Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Sensor Scan: Hellraiser and Hellraiser III

The psychology behind horror movies interests me. I know there have been studies done that show a link between fear and endorphin release, and that a lot of their popularity has been attributed to the rush your brain gets when the pleasure and fear senses get crossed. But do we actually watch horror movies to get scared? There's a whole massively popular genre of campy, no-budget horror movies that no one could possibly be remotely frightened of, yet is beloved precisely because of how cheap, fake and ridiculous it is. Then there are people who just really like seeing blood and guts splattered all over the screen: They're not getting anything deep or meaningful out of the experience, they just like the lurid spectacle.

I know for me, while horror is not a particular favourite genre of mine, the bits of it I partake in I enjoy because of the way they build atmosphere. That's sort of been a defining theme in all of my various media interests: I like things that can build a mood and a feeling. A lot of the reason I'm so partial to the German Expressionist movement and the early Universal Horror movies is because of the way those films use light, colour and design to craft a surreal mindscape the convey certain themes and emotions. I mean, that's no real surprise at this point and by now I really need to come up with some new words to describe what I like to see in media.

But I also like horror movies that use their horror trappings to explore something that's horrific or somber in real life, like how Alien made generations of men uncomfortable with themselves by turning rape culture and patriarchy into something repulsive and monstrous. The original Godzilla should really be considered a horror film, and there the horror comes from not just the obvious allegory (atomic weapons, natch), but in that classic Japanese trope of modernity's shortsighted disconnect from the natural universe. But as much as we're supposed to be horrified at the destruction of Tokyo, we also sympathize with Godzilla herself, and take pity on the tragic plight she endures. As much as we're aghast at the destruction left in her wake, we want Godzilla to win.

Which, weirdly, leads into the Hellraiser series. An adaptation of Clive Barker's novel The Hellbound Heart helmed by the author himself, the first Hellraiser film is an examination of the role pain and violence play in the human psyche as conveyed through a horror movie. It concerns a magical puzzle box that, when solved, opens a portal to the realm of the Cenobites, creatures of a monstrous visage who practice a form of ritualistic sadomasochism and self-mutilation in an effort to explore and understand carnal experience, them seeing no distinction between pleasure and pain. It's definitely an intriguing concept, especially for a horror film in 1987. With a set-up like that, there's a lot of potential for metacommentary on the whole genre, filtered through an examination of real-world S&M lifestyle. Although Giles Deleuze would say sadomasochism isn't even a thing, arguing that the two figures the concept takes its name from (Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and the Marquis de Sade) came from two irreconcilable philosophical positions, outside of genre fiction and early post-structuralism, S&M is most closely connected to BDSM kink culture (with the “B” and “D” standing for “Bind” and “Domination”), essentially a sexual hobby or lifestyle built around elabourate consensual role-playing fantasies involving power exchange and role reversal.

So, what makes the Cenobites conceptually interesting then is how they invoke this iconography and psychology in the context of metacommentary on the horror genre. One theory for why BDSM is so popular is how it “exercises the brain's systems”, the same way you might work out if you have a sedentary lifestyle or occasionally eat something really sour or bitter. I suppose a similar argument could be made for the popularity of certain horror movies: We don't get scared out of our minds on a day to day basis, so maybe that's something we enjoy precisely because of that. So this is all very well and good, but what, I can hear you ask, does any of this have to do with Star Trek? Well, one obvious connection to make is to the Borg, and in particular the Borg as depicted in the wake of Star Trek First Contact and Star Trek Voyager. Originally a monolithic hive mind representing the intractable will of capitalist hegemony, they get reinvented in 1996 to become essentially Cenobites, complete with the unfeeling self-mutilation theme (the Borg Queen in Star Trek First Contact even tempts Data with new carnal experiences, much as the Cenobites do to Frank Cotton, the antagonist of the first Hellraiser).

But the problem with both the Cenobites and the second-draft Borg is that neither of their respective works really do anything with the premises they set up. Obviously we'll talk more about the Borg later, but as for the Cenobites, a big criticism that's leveled against the sequels to Hellraiser as opposed to the first movie is that their original intended meaning is lost as they get turned into generic Pop Christian demons. There's a famous line in the first Hellraiser where the Cenobite Pinhead (who becomes the breakout character of the series in subsequent installments), explains that his people have been considered “both angels and demons” but are really merely “explorers”. It's a really tantalizing scene to be sure, and it's swiftly ignored by everything else the first movie does. What bugs me about Hellraiser is how it pays lip service to BDSM philosophy, but in every other respect is a bog-standard 1980s horror movie, with screaming, helpless women, blood and guts and menacing villains.

Frank Cotton, who summons the Cenobites, gets himself torn to pieces for his troubles and then convinces his brother's wife to kill men for him so he can rebuild his body, is the main villain to be sure, but that doesn't mean the Cenobites themselves are portrayed as anything resembling sympathetic or any less horrifying: Doug Bradley, who plays Pinhead, infuses all of his lines with a Christopher Lee-style sense of imposing dread and the Cenobites are all *treated* as generic horror movie monsters, with the heroes all screaming and fleeing in terror from them. None of them get any characterization apart from “creepy” and “grotesque”, and this has the side effect of making Hellraiser seem less of an intriguing treatise on horror movies and BDSM philosophy and more of a boring, straightforward shlockfest that appropriates BDSM imagery in an attempt to look current. I mean, Barker can have the Cenobites say they're neither good nor evil, but given the fact he uses phrases like “The Hellbound Heart” and “Hellraiser”...Well, let's just say I'm not especially surprised at the direction the series took.

So, this is why I have less of a problem than most when Pinhead turns into a ridiculous, cackling, monomaniacal Satanic villain in Hellraiser III, which I found eminently more enjoyable in an endearingly low-rent and cornball fashion. At least this movie has no pretenses to being anything other than what it is. Bradley seems to be into his part in a way he wasn't in the first movie, but as fun to watch as he is the real draw for me was Terry Farrell, in one of her first major headlining roles. Farrell plays Joey, a tenacious reporter trying to learn the truth about the puzzle box who uncovers some dark secret about how Pinhead's evil half has been split off from his good half and is throwing a fit on Earth for some reason or another, I don't really know-I got lost and stopped paying attention pretty much as soon as the credits rolled.

I've always liked Farrell, but I've got to say my jaw dropped when I saw how absolutely incredible she is in this movie: She's remarkably commanding in the part, and flatly refuses to play Joey as a stereotypical screaming and helpless horror movie girl. Instead, Farrell aggressively plays Joey as the lead and fearlessly goes toe to toe with the scenery-devouring Bradley. The climactic scene in the church is really worth a watch on its own: The way Farrell has Joey just spit fire and shout down a grandstanding Demon!Pinhead is the stuff cinematic legends are made of. It's the highlight of the whole film for me, though maybe I just can't get passed Jadzia Dax imperiously demanding a priest to tell her, if demons aren't real “...Then what the fuck is that?”. It's absolute gold. From beginning to end she just acts her heart out, and bless her, she unashamedly treats this ridiculous, ridiculous movie as her potential breakout role. I am now firmly convinced that, as much as I adore Jadzia, Terry Farrell was criminally wasted on the part. She's every ounce as commanding and powerful a stage presence as Avery Brooks is.

(Farrell's not the only Star Trek alum to cut teeth on Hellraiser, by the way: Her Star Trek: Deep Space Nine co-star Andy Robinson, who plays Garak, was Frank Cotton in the first movie. Or rather, Frank wearing his dead brother Larry's skin. He's good in the role, but it is a bit of a shame to see him end up typecast again: Robinson's breakout role was the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry, and ever since he's tended to get approached to play mysterious, psychopathic characters, which bothers him. You can see how he'd much rather be playing the down-to-Earth, everyman Larry instead of the twisted and murderous Frank.)

I used to watch a lot of shows about filmmaking growing up that would go behind the scenes of then-current and upcoming movies. I remember the Hellraiser series being spotlighted in particular for its makeup and practical effects, so Pinhead is sort of an iconic figure of this era for me. But, mostly from a production standpoint: I never really watched these movies and was never really a fan of this genre of horror. I could appreciate all the work that went into making them and how passionate people would get about them, even if I didn't really have any strong feelings one way or the other. I can say the same thing about the Hellraiser series on the whole: I can appreciate the baby steps it takes in experimenting with the horror genre, even if I don't think it was very successful, and I can be utterly delighted at one of Terry Farrell's early roles and the raw talent and professionalism one of my favourite actors of the day brought to her job, no matter how small, silly or forgettable it might have been.


  1. I've got nothing to add here, except that I also think Hellraiser III was fun.

  2. I can't remember what author he was drawing from, but I saw a panel with Charles Dunbar recently where he was arguing that there are actually several distinct motivations behind watching horror movies, found in varying levels in different people. These include the "safe fear" concept you refer to in this post, where the idea is that being frightened in a safe setting is pleasurable and a bonding experience, but he also noted that there are other motivations, like a desire to see some form of "justice" done in the sense of violence visited on people who violate social norms, and at the opposite pole (yet often coexisting in the same viewer) the "carnivalesque" and "grotesque," which are about seeing the structures of everyday life upended, inverted, and violated.

  3. Yes there is something very iconic about Pinhead and also the box. Interesting in my mind, the resonances with the Pandorica (albeit a different size) in Doctor Who. Though the Tardis (also a magic box) did pop itself into 'siege mode' in recent episode and looked very much like the Hellraiser box in my mind.

    Clive barker is interesting in the way his writing often takes very interesting idea - like you suggest above with the Cenobites being both Angels and Demons, as well as explorers - and uses them as settings for schlock horror. One novel where he went beyond this was in 'Imajica', which is a pretty mind-blowing book, where Earth is part of many parallel worlds that can be travelled between, and it also has some amazing Goddess stuff in it. Worth a look.