“To William, who doesn’t want a taco”
by Dina Levina
For reasons rooted deeply, we are taught from an early age the notion that pleasure is wicked. Candy is not dandy, it rots your teeth and innards. Masturbation makes you blind. Dirty words make Jesus weep. Say your prayers, have more boiled carrots. Suffer. Perpetually intertwined by the simple logic of our nerve endings, pain and pleasure bind up in a complicated knot with a little help from our family, friends and neighbors. Still, the more illicit things get, the more desirable they tend to become. Such was the case when a mystery man presented a shabby self-recorded cassette to my parents who could never hide bad things well.
The tight tangle of joy and suffering is apparent in horror stories which combine the two openly, so we are pleased by being scared. Such a tale the forbidden tape contained. Even better – two tales at once. I was about seven when a wall had cracked and, along with the intrusion of Western fizzes and sweetmeats, an illegal movie rental manifested itself in my post-Soviet hometown, bringing to its dwellers photocopied lists of movies with titles and genres only. One had to pick carefully, else risking a memorable viewing of something like Jack Frost (1997), where a wayward Snowman violates a girl with his conveniently displaced carrot. Yet some of the faceless rectangular boxes contained wonders, as the one with “Hellraiser I. Hellraiser II” printed crookedly on its soiled sticker soon attested.
It was the perfect time to watch them. My mind was wide open. Not scared but rather fascinated by what was unfolding on the compact TV screen, I absorbed every second of it with my very guts. The puzzle of what was happening to the characters consumed me, the unexplainable was gladly accepted. Two decades later I understand why it worked and still works so well – the story was made with love, a love that is contagious, incurable, permanent. The kind of love an Engineer passes onto its creation to install fear and awe for ages to go.
The story looks simple but works wonders for there’s an intricate universe behind it. Clive Barker translated his written work to the restricted language of movies well, creating a self-sufficing piece, the atmosphere perfectly intact. Like with every translation, some things are lost, some things are gained. While Frank falls wanking to the floor (a Bowie allusion?) in chapter one, his face is being assembled like a jigsaw puzzle on the same floor in the movie, because time and ratings allow the second and not the first. The one essential component from The Hellbound Heart that I miss is the smell, and if cinemas can be equipped to convey all written odors, the audiences will be in for a queer treat – who knew that cenobites smelled of vanilla?
The setting is a classic worthy of the Grimm Brothers – a clueless dad, an evil stepmother and a relatively innocent daughter arrive at an old house where Evil awaits. Unbeknownst to them, Dad’s rotten brother had a peculiar encounter with a quartet of jaded but well-dressed demonic priests of pain not long ago, and when some blood is spilled on the floorboards of the room where he died, the fairy-tale begins.
For the most part the story is driven by the stepmother, Julia, who has a relatable quest. When the movie title had to be picked, one of the female crew members suggested “What a Woman Will Do for a Good Fuck”, and was completely on point. To regain her briefly enjoyable (and somewhat censored by the producers) sex life with Frank, Julia kills a bunch of random men and fatally betrays her boring husband, but is herself deceived by her reincarnated lover. Julia happens to be the only truly well-written character in the movie – the fact that doesn’t take anything away from it. The rest work perfectly in their two dimensions. Julia has a ghost, an aim that is taboo, and a load of most bizarre obstacles.
All the tribal horrors can be found here: a no-sex marriage, adultery, inbreeding (uncle Frank with his phallic pocket knife is incest personified) and dead parents of all kinds, stepparents gone wrong and the inevitable destruction of the whole family by its lousy member. Each scene is well-written, each conflict grips you by the balls. Combine it with all the details that broaden the context (the grasshopper-eating hobo, whom I love, is an immediate reference to the Bible, and there are more fun things to find), the special effects that are truly special, considering the low budget, the creepy sound and the beautiful score by Christopher Young, and you get a perfect movie. Julia’s 80-style makeup and hairdos add subtly to the horror. The cenobite scenes are visceral (perhaps that’s how square, middle-aged people envision S&M parties) and they get etched into your memory so you can hear the teeth chatter long after the TV has been safely turned off.
Part II is far from its predecessor’s perfection, with no solid theme or plot in sight. The Lemarchand’s box remains the only three-dimensional character, the Snow White is mentioned openly, and though probably intended as a nod to the original, several scenes look second-hand (Julia chasing Kirsty between two walls in the naughty dimension mirrors the endearing Engineer scene from the first movie; the final skin twist is silly). Where in the first part there’s a heartfelt tale of people who want to have a fun sex life but fail weirdly, the second only has its ashes for a carcass, and everything falls apart with no spine to get attached to. Doctors are creepy. Hospital security is a mess. Mute girls are mysterious. Cenobites think they’ve been here forever but they are wrong. The Evil is mighty, no one really knows shit, and everything is a fucking puzzle.
The only thing that keeps me really happy during these ninety seven minutes is the hilarity of the freshly made doctor-cenobite – talking in cliché doctor phrases, dragging the perfect first line of dialogue out of the previously mute Tiffany. “And how are we feeling today?” screeches the good doctor before drilling into someone’s skull with a specially equipped tentacle, and I thank him for that. But there’s still no good story, and for me part two is forever a curious afterbirth.
When I first watched them twenty years ago, the conjoined twins on a single greasy VHS, I mistook the teaser at the end of part two for the beginning of a third movie (with no more free space to record onto, Hellraiser II had ended abruptly before the final titles). This was a happy delusion, for as the countless sequels show, the real story had ended here. There is, of course, a faceless number three, the obligatory part about cenobites in space, a movie that was just a random script with Pinhead unnaturally stuffed into it, and many, many more I dared not explore because some doors had better stay shut.
Each fairy-tale has its moral, and some of Charles Perrault’s even have two, at which I pondered while reading the book that should’ve been forbidden for kids but wasn’t. So pick your moral. Sweet things can kill you, sometimes faster than you may have suspected. Sex is bad. Grasshoppers are nutritious. Bad guys come back and good ones don’t. Suffering can be a pleasure. As for the second part, the moral is quite simple: one should always dispose of an old mattress in a safe, responsible way.