Moronic / Iconic, Part Four: Raise a Little Hell
By Desmond Reddick
02 April 2007 — Both stylistically and conceptually, Pinhead of the Hellraiser series is one of the most intriguing characters in horror cinema. While he may not have the household name recognition of Jason or Freddy, I would argue that visually he is as recognizable as a hockey mask-wearing killing machine or a gloved burn victim. Pinhead and his cadre of demonic sadists, called the Cenobites, have always been supporting characters in their own films. Like the aforementioned horror icons, this is the best way to portray a monster. It is only when the focus of the film is put on the monster, rather than the people pursued by said monster, when poor movies are guaranteed. In the strange case of the Cenobites, this has never changed and yet they still have lost their way.
The Hellraiser films follow a specific formula: as always, there is a character whose thirst for pleasure beyond imagination leads him to a strange, engraved puzzle box. After being engrossed by its intricate design and bewildering locks, the thrill-seeker eventually opens it — unleashing chains, hooks and those that wield them: the Cenobites.
To the Cenobites, humanity is a canvas with which they paint their painful visions. Skin is pierced and stretched, bodies torn asunder and flesh reshaped into something gruesome. The whole conceit behind the series is the thin line between pleasure and pain being transgressed. Since there's not much left in the way of corporeal pleasure, the jaded puzzle box-seekers truly are looking for what the Cenobites have to offer. It's the perfect Clive Barkerian idea.
Barker not only envisioned the Cenobites and wrote "The Hellbound Heart" (the novella the Hellraiser series is based on), he also wrote and directed the first Hellraiser film and oversaw the second. Of course, after that, like in all horror series, things went downhill. However, in comparison to other series in the genre, Hellraiser has at least managed to keep its dignity.
The problem with Pinhead and his followers is very closely tied to their virtues. The best thing about them is that they barely show up in their own films. This is the best method of keeping a monster scary. But, it limits the amount of stories one can tell. The result of this drought of ideas? Hollywood executives deciding that an otherwise rote script would be better served (and made sellable) by plastering Pinhead and his ilk all over it. Thus the world was blessed with Hellraiser: Inferno, Hellraiser: Deader and Hellraiser: Hellworld. When they finally tried to tell a more involved story (Hellraiser: Bloodline), one set within the universe of the films, they went the sci-fi route by setting it in space. This mixed up mess involved three separate timelines outlining the origins of both the Lament Configuration (née Lemarchand's box) and Pinhead himself. Though their lofty aspirations are commendable, the outcome is not.
As of the last two films, Pinhead has been part of a deus ex machina. Those films — Deader and Hellworld, respectively — have had relatively strong scripts. Especially Deader, which saw a reporter attempting to investigate a cult in Bucharest. The cult purports to bring the dead back to life, and soon the reporter finds herself too immersed in the Romanian cult to back out, leaving Pinhead to swoop in at the end and blame the cult leader for traversing their world.
Essentially they are from Hell, "angels to some, demons to others" as Pinhead put it in one film. They must be tricked or bargained with to be beaten and these last films still do follow that ideal, but one almost wishes for a departure from the norm. An experimental look at the inner dealing of the Cenobites would be perfect. They wouldn't have to go as far as they did in Bloodline, but a little middle ground might be nice.
It is my understanding that Clive Barker is scripting the remake of his original 1987 film. I hope that this reinvigorates the series rather than continuing on with the same tired conceit. If there is one person who is capable of doing that, I believe that it is a more mature Barker.
Stop using Pinhead as a way of bringing an abrupt end to a completely unrelated story! If it were an anthology series à la Freddy's Nightmares I'd be a bit more forgiving. Pinhead should be used as a way of exploring sadomasochism, virtue and vice and, generally, the threshold between pain and pleasure.