Every October, I watch as many horror films as time allows. A few old favorites, but mostly anything new I can get my hands on. I’ll review each and every one for your reading pleasure. Reviews will generally go up the day after I watch them. This is… KILLTOBERFEST.
Movie #1 – Hellraiser
Every year I also try to watch a full horror franchise, and Netflix happens to have every single Hellraiser movie. My choice is made for me.
I’d seen the original before and wasn’t terribly impressed with it; it’s just not very scary, and lacks a likable, fleshed-out protagonist. But I did see a clip of Rob Ager, close-reader extraordinaire, discussing some of the thematic underpinnings of the film, which made me want to take another look. If you believe Ager, and I see no reason not to, Hellraiser is not only about the human search for sensation, be it pleasurable or painful, it is about how a horror film audience is participating in that same search for the extremes of emotion. It suggests that we watch these things to test ourselves and to break through the monotony of reality, even if the novel sights are horrifying or painful to watch.
Like any Clive Barker anything (he wrote and directed), it’s also shot through with sex. In a way it’s like a classy, scary porno version of Little Shop of Horrors, with the main character growing a man to fuck instead of a plant to sell. Sex is associated in the film with violence, like in many horror films; but here the primary association is with corruption, both physical and metaphysical. An early shot, for instance, shows a small pair of ceramic figures copulating as a roach crawls by. The house itself undergoes a continual transformation, eventually shaking itself apart. Similarly, the villain’s body is literally torn apart in punishment (or reward?) for his transgression, and the young girl narrowly escapes a similar fate; both summoned the Cenobites, pierced and malformed otherworldly figures, by stroking and manipulating a puzzle box, caressing it open. I was reminded of the double meaning of the word “fetish”, as both a sexual proclivity and an object of touch and obsession.
When viewed under this lens the rote, thin, or underwritten plotting and characterization of the film drop away in favor of a nightmarish descent into depravity, a set of extreme sensations and sights that corrode innocence and overwhelm reason and morality. By the end of this unusually grisly and imaginative film, like all of the characters living and dead, we can safely say to the next horror film, “I’ve seen worse.”