From Hellbound to Hellraiser: Examining Clive Barker’s 1987 Adaptation

Editor’s note: All throughout October, the vibes get spookier and the nights get longer. It’s the perfect time of year to watch horror movies, whether you’re a year-round horror fan or you just like to watch horror flicks to get into the Halloween spirit. This year at Horror Obsessive, for our 31 Horror Classics Revisited series, we’re giving you one recommendation for a classic horror film each day throughout the month of October. What do you think—is this film a horror classic? What other horror films do you consider to be classics, and what films do you make sure you watch each October? Let us know in the comments below!

At first glance, The Hellbound Heart seems to be a trashy and overwrought gothic romance that’s been catered for business travelers on short trips. However, beyond its title, it’s actually a transgressive, occasionally quite inspired (in its prose), and grotesque piece of short fiction.

The power of the novella comes into sharper focus when it’s contrasted with the author’s late eighties adaptation. On the surface, Clive Barker’s film follows the same plot as his novella: Frank Cotton is a man who revels in pleasure at the expense of others. After hearing of a puzzle box ( Lemarchand’s Configuration) that can summon him into a realm of untold pleasure, Frank instantly acquires the box and gets to work on solving it. However, much to his horror, the young hedonist finds the box that summons the Cenobites.

Close up of Pinhead

They’re beings who have an inhuman definition of pleasure and pain. They torture Frank until he completely ceases to exist in our world. Meanwhile, Frank’s brother (Rory in the novella and Larry in the film) and his wife, Julia move into his grandmother’s house. After an accident that involves Larry’s thumb gushing with blood and spilling on the attic floor, Frank finds himself slowly coming back to life.

Julia who is unhappy and dissatisfied in her marriage to the older cotton sibling stumbles upon the barely human version of Frank. After having an affair with Frank (a week before her marriage to Larry), she agrees to get some bodies (via seducing random men and taking them back home), so that the younger cotton brother can be whole again, and she can feel sexually fulfilled again.

The first major point of divergence between the source material and the film comes from its handling of the religious aspects. In the novella, religion is an omnipresent aspect, whether it’s a reference to a persistent sound of a bell or the following quote from the second section of Chapter 2: “Sunday. It was still the Lord’s Day up this end of the city. Even if the owners of these well-dressed houses and well-pressed children were no longer believers, they still observed the Sabbath.” [1]

However, more pointedly is the sense of the Cenobites being drawn in quite religious colors in the novella, “The ones Krcher had called the Cenobites, theologians of the Order of the Gash.” [2] This aspect is compounded by an elaborate ceremony and altar that Frank has to prepare for the Cenobites.

Pinhead holds puzzle in Hellraiser

In Hellraiser, the religious aspects are toned down and exist as subtle pieces of set design as opposed to overt statements of our antagonists. Barker’s choice for this change is interesting insofar as it feels like he’s trying to illustrate that Frank’s lustful and hedonistic lifestyle stands in contrast to the Christianity his grandmother upheld. When Julia and Larry go through the house, various Christian totems are either tampered with or exist in an ungainly contrast to Frank’s antics. There’s even an amusing joke in the third act where Kirsty is startled by a statue of a smiling Jesus Christ.

With this in mind, this change seeks to underline the insidious nature of Frank Cotton. In a sense, he’s the true evil of the story, one who like Satan himself is a corrupting figure who seeks to tempt and undermine a Christian union (via the marriage between his brother Larry and Julia).

At the same time, Barker takes some of the themes of his novella, namely the blurred line between pleasure and pain and neatly depicts them cinematically. One early sequence that has Julia reflecting on her affair with Frank is contrasted with Larry stubbing his thumb against a nail. And some moments cleverly make commentary on the nature of long-term relationships, such as when Kirsty and Steve kiss for the first time, contrasted with Julia agonizing in bed while Larry is soundly asleep.

Kirsty proves to be another diverging point between the novella and the film. In the former, she’s a shy, mousy, and insecure presence who romantically longs to be with Rory. However, in the film, she’s confident, and assertive and instead is Larry’s daughter. The change feels like a streamlining of sorts as there are no longer two people in the story who long (romantically or sexually) for people that they can’t have. At the same time, the change emphasizes different points of the final twist of the story.

In a desperate bind, Frank decides that his final victim will be his brother. In killing him (offscreen), the younger sibling adopts his older sibling’s skin and attempts to pass himself off as him too. In the novella, when Kirsty discovers this, she’s horrified by the act and sees it as a violation of a good man she once knew: “Somehow the theft of Rory’s name was as unforgivable as stealing his skin; or so her grief told her. A skin was nothing. But a name? That was a spell, which summoned memories.” [3]

Whereas, in the film, the act is seen as a dark twisted irony on an innocent suggestion made to Kirsty at the beginning of the film. Larry invites her to stay with him and Julia as the house is being refurbished. However, she declines due to not liking Julia very much. This suggestion has a dark tinge to it now as Kirsty is requested to stay and be complicit in her stepmother and uncle’s murderous duplicity. This is compounded by a dark irony in which (superficially) Julia and Larry’s marital problems are solved in a sadistically cruel manner. But above all, the change cements Frank’s true depravity as he lusts after his niece in a manner befitting of a true groomer and predator.

Fred corners a woman in Hellraiser

Barker in his imagery does play with this fear. In the aftermath of Kirsty initially escaping from Frank’s clutches, she stops and reflects on his rancid words. As she faints and we see nearby people ask if she’s all right, we see one final image of Frank, which is juxtaposed with a dreamlike image of a flower coming into bloom. The moment is a David Lynch-esque moment of surrealism that illustrates Kirsty’s fear of growing up due to the lurid implications it brings, namely getting lusted over by her creepy uncle.

The rest of the film does have these surreal moments in which Kirsty’s fears and everyday existence are disturbed by the uncanny and supernatural. In fact, the endings of both the novella and film greatly surmised the theme of each story. In the former, the box becomes a metaphor and puzzle that Kirsty ponders over insofar as to what has happened and whether or not it can mend a broken heart (concerning Rory).

In the film, a frequently seen tramp throughout the film transforms into a winged creature and takes the box back from Kirsty. The events of the film are minimized as the box is sold to another unsuspecting victim in a far-off country.

The novella seemingly leans into the forlorn Gothic spirit of its story. Whereas, the film illustrates how the supernatural is so present in the mundane that it could spill into it.

Works Cited

[1] Barker, Clive. The Hellbound Heart. Harper Voyager, 2011.

[2] Barker, Clive. The Hellbound Heart. Harper Voyager, 2011.

[3] Barker, Clive. The Hellbound Heart. Harper Voyager, 2011.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Written by Sartaj Singh

Notes from a distant observer:

“Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”

Arianna's head is tied down to a gurney as she provides a very worried look toward the camera in The Goldsmith

Grimmfest 2022: The Goldsmith is More Glitter than Gold

Cover for "If this book exists you're in the wrong universe"

‘If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe’ Delivers More Hilarious Chills From Jason Pargin