“Take it, Mr. Cotton, it’s yours. It always was.”

I may, or may not, have purchased some things on the black market in my life. Ranging from the predictable to the highly unusual. However, if I were to find myself in a back-alley café in Morocco with an elderly Asian man selling me a priceless occult antique for a relatively small sum of money given its material value alone, I would be hesitant.

Hesitant is an understatement. If I then left with said occult item (he already laid down the money, $20,000 by the look of it, and the black market has a distinct ‘No Backsies’ policy, or more accurately ‘caveat emptor’ for those of us who studied Latin to aide in picking up intelligent girls) only for the seller to inform me that I should take it because it was always mine… yeah, I don’t see a room full of candles and a foolish attempt to unlock its mysteries in my future.

Don’t get me wrong, I love puzzles, I love learning forbidden knowledge, and like anyone with at least one Bauhaus album on vinyl (Press Eject and Give Me the Tape, first pressing, yeah, be jealous), I love a candlelit room.

All that being said, Uncle Frank is a phenomenal idiot. That the Cenobites spend what appears to be weeks tearing him apart and showing him new and exciting ways to feel unending agony is, well, entirely his fault and elicits zero sympathy. The man might as well have been standing in a room full of gasoline chain smoking for all the safety precautions he had in place for summoning some unknown extra-dimensional evil.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the first 5 minutes of the film.

Hellraiser and its immediate sequel Hellbound: Hellraiser II are essentially one film. The Kill Bill of 80s horror movies. The second film picks up shortly after the first, with Kirsty Cotton in a mental hospital. It’s never entirely explained, but a pretty good guess would be that she told the cops the truth about what happened to her family and their home, stuck to the story, and ended up being committed to a psychiatric hospital for observation. Given what happened, it’s not an unreasonable outcome.

The main problem that Kirsty has is that the hospital administrator believes her, and this no doubt played a part in her ending up in his facility. In fact, once we see his private office in his home on the hospital grounds, we see exactly why he is so interested in Ms. Cotton.

He is obsessed with the Lament Configuration, Lemarchand’s Box, the Puzzle Box, the for-fucks-sake-its-not-a-Rubick’s-Cube-stop-trying-to-solve-it box. He has several contained in bell jars, their authenticity never really addressed. He has what appear to be Lemarchand’s original designs for the box, or very well-made forgeries. In fact, he seems to spend all of his considerable disposable income on anything relating to the box and its history. He even goes so far as to purchase one of the surviving relics from Kirsty’s house fire; her stepmother’s blood-soaked mattress.

This was the 1980s, the era of mental health deregulation, so I can’t imagine that his salary alone pays for all of this. My guess would be that Dr. Channard had a wallet full of maxed out credit cards that funded his collection and seemingly opulent lifestyle (remember, Uncle Frank paid $20,000 for his box, and Dr. Channard has at least four of them), to say nothing of the immense size of his facility when every other mental hospital in the country was reducing the number of available beds due to President Reagan and the Republican controlled Congress’ enthusiasm for taking the seriously mentally ill off their meds and turning them out onto the street where they could be properly insane with no medication or medical supervision among the general population. Yeah freedom!

A bold move that surely saved the American taxpayers loads of money and made everything in America just that much better.

Why contain the mentally ill and potentially criminally insane inside secure facilities where they would get proper care and treatment when you can have them living under bridges and shanking yuppies for enough pocket money for a few bottles of Thunderbird, Ripple, or my personal favorite “bum wine” Mad Dog 20/20?

The first film, after Uncle Frank learns that randomly inviting extra-dimensional beings with a taste for the sorts of S&M that don’t exist in our reality to your house, belongs firmly on the ‘Bad Idea’ list. And then the relatives arrive! The Cenobites, having made a hasty exit from our reality, accidentally leave behind enough of Frank that, with the help of anything with warm blood in its veins (rats, birds, stray cats, etc.) can slowly reconstitute his physical form. Meanwhile, the world’s most functional marriage is happening right downstairs.

Frank’s brother, his wife who is so cold and distant she might as well be an arctic ice flow in expensive pumps, and his daughter from a previous marriage are moving into the old homestead as nobody has seen Frank in months and his brother is a little tired of him living rent free in their parent’s old house and turning it into a bizarre hybrid of heroin shooting gallery, garbage dump, and occult library. In truth it reminds me a lot of a place I used to live. I wish that were an attempt at humor.

Anyhow, Julia, the iceberg that walks like a person is the only one to properly investigate the house, including the attic where Frank has been slowly and very, very painfully putting himself back together. Julia was hoping to find Frank as the two of them used to fuck behind her husband/Frank’s brothers back. It also seems that Julia shares Frank’s passion for the forbidden, which is why she seems to not give a shit if her husband or stepdaughter live or die, even before it becomes a life or death situation.

She finds Frank in a less-than-sexy state and he rather easily convinces her to start seducing yuppies to bring round while her husband is at work so Frank can kill them, steal their flesh and blood, and make his regeneration move along at a much more reasonable pace.

Seriously, what the fuck is wrong with this woman? I’ve been in relationships that were crazy intense. Intense enough that I took leave of my senses and sanity. It’s why to this day I’m not allowed to return to Singapore or Malta using my real passport*. She moves into a disgusting-even-by-squatter-standards house with a husband she hates, a stepdaughter she is utterly indifferent to, has all the ambition and mannerisms of a kept woman, and takes no notice that the house is filled with serious occult and drug paraphernalia. The good shit, as far as that goes on the last two points, not the Hot Topic after Halloween sale décor, and a couple of tattered ‘Legalize It’ flags, but the real deal, as if Alistair Crowley and Iggy Pop had been his interior decorators.

This is what she is willing to lure lonely, middle aged bald men to their deaths for. Ahh, but what’s a few brutal supernaturally motivated murders between adulterous lovers?

As our story unfolds, we learn that Frank, through the bits of himself left behind in the attic of the house when the Cenobites made their exit has been able to escape from the realm they call home. Not hell, but if I were a real estate agent selling property there, I would describe it as ‘Hell Adjacent’. A place known as The Labyrinth, created by and ruled over by a Lovecraftian horror so vast and incomprehensible to the human mind that it simply appears as two, thin, pyramids connected at the bottom that emits a black light and a sound that recalls what a tugboat in a children’s book would sound like if it were dying of cancer (they burn coal, coal is a known carcinogen, they work 12-16 hours a day, that’s like smoking a carton of the cheapest off-brand smokes you can find every hour for your entire working life, those poor, poor tugboats…).

“Jesus wept!”

Now that Frank is close to fully regenerated, he can’t seem to grow new skin, so unless he is looking for a career as a living anatomical model, he needs Julia to bring him one more victim… his brother. That way he can leave all of his past mistakes (and police file surely large enough to have its own shelf at the local precinct) behind him. Julia can stay married and finally get the kinky sex she has been needing this whole time (if she had just told her husband what she was into I feel like half the plot would have been resolved before they moved into the house and Julia found Frank’s meaty, gooey remains and… fell in love with him/them again? Look, the woman clearly has issues).

Of course, Frank is also still into transgressing into things, ideas, and places man was not meant to go, and once he has his brother’s skin, he wastes no time hitting on Kirsty… while wearing her father’s skin suit… No wonder the Cenobites had fun with Frank, there isn’t a line that he won’t just cross, he’ll do a little soft shoe tap dance number across it.

So, in the midst of all this family drama/one-sided-super-creepy-sexual-tension Kirsty realizes dad is dead, Uncle Frank is wearing his skin, and Julia is totally cool with all of this and then she, Kirsty, finds the box. This being the 80s and the height of the box-shaped-puzzle craze she makes short work of opening it and manifesting some Cenobites eager to show Kirsty what she and everyone else on our plane of existence are missing out on when it comes to sexual deviance and leather outfits. Kirsty, ever the clever one, informs them that Frank has escaped the Labyrinth and is back on Earth in new skin. Pinhead isn’t pleased at this news, but also warns Kirsty that making a deal with Cenobites isn’t like make a deal with a demon, as they aren’t demons. They can, and will, fuck you over if they so much as feel like it, and if you try to crawfish the minions of the Leviathan there isn’t a place on Earth, or anywhere else, where you will be safe from their wrath.

“We have such sights to show you!”

And we are back to the beginning. The Cenobites retake Frank, Julia dies horribly on the bed later purchased by Dr. Channard, Kirsty realizes that closing the box severs the Cenobites connection to our world, sending them home with only Uncle Frank and Julia as a consolation prize. Then, having successfully managed to screw over a group of ancient, malevolent entities from an incomprehensible dimension, Kirsty goes to a psychiatric facility. All in all, a reasonable ending.

However, there is part two, and since this is supposed to be a review and not a recap, we will make it brief.

Kirsty finds an autistic girl, and others, that Dr. Channard is trying to get to open the boxes, missing the one key element from the box’s legend: That doesn’t work. As Pinhead himself says, “It’s not hands that open the box, it’s will, intention.” But Dr. Channard is too wrapped up in the fact that Julia has managed to escape the same way frank did, and after rocking the Bride of Frankenstein look for awhile, he feeds her enough mental patients that she becomes her old self again, only this time with an agenda.

Kirsty’s new BFF, the mute autistic girl opens the box, but in a different way than before. She manages to open a stable portal to the realm the Cenobites and their Lovecraftian god call home. So of course, she is lured in and Kirsty tries to find her, this is where the movie essentially becomes Labyrinth without David Bowie or Muppets. The Cenobites find Kirsty, she tries to banish them like before, but they point out they can’t be banished because they are already home. So, she offers them another deal: Julia and Dr. Channard. Once again Pinhead is skeptical, but despite the previous double-cross, she was right last time, so they make a tentative agreement that if Julia and the doctor are indeed trespassing in their realm, Kirsty and her friend might – might – get safe passage back to earth.

Hey, it’s better than you’ll get from most extra-dimensional evil.

Eventually Dr. Channard is chosen as a new Cenobite and decides that he’s in charge now, and the other Cenobites having been reminded of their long-lost humanity fight him but are unsuccessful. Shit, this is running long.

The doctor and Julia both get what’s coming to them, as does Uncle Frank who is imprisoned by the Cenobites, no doubt saved for extra special torture time. One can only imagine what that would be like given their usual methods. I still get jumpy in the section of the hardware store with all the chains.

“Speak child, but be quick.”

THE REVIEW: OK, the world’s longest recap aside (cut me some slack, it was two movies at once!) here it is. Hellraiser I is a pretty excellent film for a first-time director who also wrote and edited it. Which is where the film’s main problem lies. Every good director needs a good editor to stand back and say “No, this is extraneous, doesn’t move the plot, looks silly and isn’t needed, etc” but Clive Barker lacked that. As a result, it feels like you are watching an overindulgent Director’s Cut of a really good movie, but one where the theatrical cut was a tighter, better film. And the demon thing that retrieves the box at the end was a waste of time and money. You only needed to wait till Kirsty and her not exactly a boyfriend are walking away from the burning house to have the strange Chinese man from the beginning who sold the box to Frank walk out of the burning remains holding the box, none the worse for wear. He places it into a reddish leather bag, implied to be human skin, and inside the bag we see several more boxes. The film could then end with him walking away to meet someone he has an appointment with. Confirming him as a servant of Leviathan on earth, possibly a Cenobite, one that just gets off on torturing people by giving them exactly what they think they want and bringing the film full circle, without the awful claymation demon thing.

Hellraiser II: The Quickening

This is a much, much tighter film. It tells its story with what could be called a ‘conservation of narrative’. It could also be called ‘We made a decent amount of money with the first but the studio still doesn’t like putting up money for horror so we’ll use fewer characters and sets and save it all for the third act in another fucking dimension” and it works. It’s also much more tightly edited. A few narrative choices don’t make sense, such as Dr. Channard, fresh from becoming a Cenobite being able to take down Pinhead and his crew so easily. That fight should have been epic, but instead they get a few shots in before Channard just wipes the floor with them. After all that build up that should have been a fight as Jack Burton would say, “shook the pillars of heaven”.

Overall, though R-rated Labyrinth: For Adults Who Like Satanic S&M and dislike Muppets (they ruin the moment, well, for most right-thinking people, but that could be all the years I worked at PBS talking), is if anything, a better film than the first. Not a startling revelation I know, much like my opinion that these are the only Hellraiser films, as the later ones are just a giant example of the law of diminishing returns. Hell, some of them weren’t even originally written as Hellraiser films, they were spec scripts for serial killer movies, cop movies, and a movie about a killer video game that the studio took a look at and said “Hellraiser. This will be the next Hellraiser film, so we don’t have to give Clive Barker the movie rights back.”

The servants of The Leviathan don’t always wear black leather and the world’s most extreme body piercings.


*Postscript: Singapore was not entirely my fault, and wasn’t even that big of a thing, but I take full responsibility for Malta. You punch out two multi-billionaires after drunkenly making fun of them after hours of playing, and losing badly at, baccarat like they thought they were the cheap Gucci knock off handbag versions of James Bond and the next thing you know the Maltese police are chasing you through that gigantic, gorgeous casino and getting Interpol involved like I and my lovely companion were criminals of some sort.

Though in retrospect, Interpol might have been called about the yacht we borrowed to make our escape. The details are fuzzy, we drank a lot of sort-of expensive champagne that I told the waiter to put on the tabs of the multi-billionaire asshats who couldn’t take a punch for shit, which also might have had something to do with their anger when they got the bill.  Honestly, at $625 a bottle, for four bottles of Dom Perignon ’62 ($2,500 total in US dollars, not counting the taxes – Malta absolutely murders you with sales tax) it was a hell of a bargain and I didn’t think they would notice. The hookers in their laps probably cost more than that in ten-minute intervals (and like the ’62 Dom, were no doubt worth every penny).

We did return the yacht, sort of, leaving it docked and out of gas in Cassis, France (lovely little city on the Mediterranean coast) with a note taped to the controls on the bridge that read “Very sorry,  here is your boat back. Its out of petrol and one of the toilets is clogged, but we found it like that, and you might want to just go ahead and burn the sheets in the master bedroom, along with most of the towels in the en suite. =( “

The things we do for love.


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