Monday, October 31, 2011
Scariest Characters in Cinema #4 - Pinhead
When I was a kid, despite being obsessed with horror, there were certain movies I was afraid to watch. I would read any reviews and articles I could find on these films but was wary of actually renting them, believing them to be more than I could handle. One of these was Hellraiser; its intimidating title and VHS art compelled me to pick it up, then replace it minutes later, countless times over the years. When, in my teens, I finally got around to seeing Hellraiser, it was as grisly as I'd imagined, but it was also smart and strangely beautiful. While Barker's work can be extreme in its content, he's also one of the most richly imaginative writers of our time. And though Hellraiser sometimes reveals its low-budget seams, it's supported by an extraordinary, mythic backstory about a puzzle box that, when solved, opens a door to world where pain and pleasure are one.
The rulers and denizens of this otherworld are the Cenobites, human figures with pierced, mutilated bodies clad in leather. The word "cenobite" means "a member of a religious order," and these Cenobites do have the solemn purposefulness of a monastery in carrying out their dark deeds; like Jack Torrance in The Shining, they've unknowingly accepted the position of eternal caretakers of hell. In the first Hellraiser, they mostly serve as background to the story of the skinless, partially resurrected Frank (Oliver Smith) and his attempts, with the help of his brother's wife Julia (Claire Higgins), to feed on enough blood to rebuild his body. Frank and Julia are Hellraiser's true monsters; the Cenobites are only interested in preserving the rules of their world, and their business is only with those who have summoned them. And Pinhead (Doug Bradley), the most recognizable character of the original film and whole series, is so peripheral to the story that he's only credited in the first movie as "Lead Cenobite."
And yet Pinhead, despite his brief screen time, lingers as strong in the memory as the film's astonishing rebirth sequence and its brilliant score by Christopher Young. Much of this has to do with Pinhead's stunning appearance, the fearful symmetry of his piercings and the contrast between his black eyes and snow-white skin. And then there's Bradley's performance - Barker directed the actor to play the lead Cenobite like "a cross between an administrator and a surgeon who's responsible for running a hospital where there are no wards, only surgical tables." He brings to the role a calm authority and perverse elegance, that, coupled with Pinhead's imposing figure, make Pinhead a precise, businesslike administrator of pain and suffering.
If this makes Pinhead sound a bit like a professional dominatrix, this is not a mistake; Hellraiser, like much of Barker's work, is heavy with sadomasochistic themes. Certainly, the movie is filled with images of body modification, bondage and dominance and submission. The fact that Pinhead is, in a peculiar way, not only visually striking but perhaps even a bit sexy makes him much more frightening. When they are summoned by the Lament Configuration, the Cenobites aim only to deliver the sensory experiences their summoners believe they want - as Pinhead clarifies in the first sequel, "It's not the hand that summons us, it's the desire." One of the great things about Barker is that he's one of the few horror writers to openly embrace the sensual aspects of horror stories - our attraction to experiencing fear in small, "safe" doses. In a sense, anyone who has ever gone to a scary movie has participated in a little light S&M.
Hellbound: Hellraiser II is my favorite film in the series for its Grand Guignol atmosphere and for being the rare horror sequel that adds a back story for its monster that is actually interesting. Unfortunately, by Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth the filmmakers were making the mistake of showing too much of the Cenobites - the unpredictability of their appearances is part of their power, and once they starting added other Cenobites with compact discs and other things sticking out of their necks, they sacrificed that power. After this, the sequels become increasingly ridiculous - one revolves around a Hellraiser MMPORG - and Pinhead treated more like a generic movie monster. Bradley smartly passed on the latest DTV sequel; luckily, we'll always have the first two movies as a tribute to Barker's wild imagination.