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Hellraiser at 35: A Conversation With Nicholas Vince and Simon Bamford

I chatted with Chatterer and Butterball themselves about everything from queerness and acceptance to theme parks and politics!

On the 30th of October, as part of their In Dreams Are Monsters blockbuster, the British Film Institute hosted a special double-bill of Nightbreed and Hellraiser to celebrate both Hellraiser‘s 35th anniversary and the release of Phil and Sarah Stokes’ new book Clive Barker’s Dark Worlds. As Horror Obsessive’s resident Hellraiser fanatic, I met with Nicholas Vince and Simon Bamford—Chatterer and Butterball themselves—to discuss the event, and all things Barker.

Riley Wade: What do you think has made Hellraiser so special? What started up as this ostensibly monster movie in the ’80s, and now has so many sequels, a reboot, and this amazing, long-lasting legacy?

Nicholas Vince: It’s really hard to quantify, because it’s going to depend on your personal view, and possibly you’re more qualified to answer it than we are. […] I think it’s a very adult film, it’s adults who are being broken, and who are doing nasty things to each other, and so on. People seem to meet it at different times in their life, I think they’re enchanted by it. I got fascinated by the fact that my character, Chatterer, at one point gained a following among 6-13-year-old boys [laughs]. They refer to him as “Chatterbox.” They find him very very cool.

Simon Bamford: I think it has a uniqueness to it. There’s nothing like it, and there hasn’t been anything like it since it was made. On paper, it could look like the most ridiculous story that should never have been made. A few things managed to make it work—first and foremost Clive Barker’s amazing storytelling, his amazing writing, and his tight direction and working with the editors [Richard Marden and Tony Randel]. I think that kept it as one of those stories that keep flowing, there’s nothing amiss, there’s no padding in it. And some remarkable performances which help you to go down the rabbit hole.

Clive once said that you go down a spiral with stories like this, you start very much in the real world, and then you slowly spiral down into things which are completely impossible, and the further you go the more you show and the more “ridiculous” it can be, but you have to start basically in reality. When you talk, Nick, about it being very “adult” it starts in a very real adult world that everybody can relate to, and because it starts there and because everyone can relate to it and then you start that spiral going down. Then you’ve got the amazing performances, especially the leads, who help to make it real. On top of that I always say Christopher Young’s amazing score, which really elevates it, without that score I think it would’ve been a much lesser film—it makes it huge…What do you think, Riley?

RW: For me, it’s a very personally queer story, it’s a very from-the-heart story from Clive Barker himself; it’s about queerness, it’s about sexuality and it’s about sensuality. As a queer person, it was very meaningful to have a film like this out there in the guise of an ’80s horror classic. With the casting of Jamie Clayton in the most recent film, it’s like the gates have been opened for queerness. What are your takes on Hellraiser’s queer legacy?

Simon Bamford: I think Jamie Clayton is the perfect casting for the role, and I think she does a fantastic job!

Nicholas Vince: It’s absolutely fascinating because there’s a lot to do with sexuality and sensuality. It’s about exploring the further reaches of experience—“Demons to some, angels to others”—and you’ve got these creatures that are just unashamedly sexual. I think it’s a way of expressing the fact of saying “this is the body I was born into, this body is not quite right for me,” or “this is the way I was brought up or the way I was supposed to be, but I don’t fit in with everybody else,” “I fancy boys when I should be fancying girls,” or “I fancy girls when I should be fancying boys,” or “my gender identity is fluid,” or “my sexuality is fluid.”

I think that’s what the cenobites, in a graphic sense, represent—and there’s nothing ashamed about them, and there’s no sense of guilt about the cenobites. It’s just you know, “let’s go out and explore, all that it means to be a sexual creature.” And all that means in terms of experience. I do find it absolutely wonderful that there is such freedom to them, and that people that identify differently have found a home in Clive’s work. The other film we’re screening is Nightbreed, which is another queer icon as far as I’m concerned. And judging by the amount of people that have come up to me and said, “This film means such a lot to me in terms of dealing with everything I’m going through,” whether that’s gay queer, etc.

Simon Bamford: It’s interesting, Frank at the beginning of the film is unhappy and unfulfilled about his sexuality, which is why he’s going further. He’s exploring, and he wants to try something new. Frank, even at the beginning, starts off with those themes, and I think Nightbreed probably explores those themes more than even Hellraiser with a lot of that. There are no limits.

RW: Nightbreed is such a landmark film in how it shows the “Monsters” being assaulted on all sides by “Humanity.” As you said, Nick, the transformation of the body becomes this freeing act, and that’s something that when we talk about “35 years on, what does that mean?” That really ought to be spoken about. For a lot of trans people, this is the first trans person they’ve seen on screen: The man with pins in his head, or, in the novella, this androgynous character that speaks in this schoolgirl’s voice but has this very domineering personality. For me at least, Barker’s work was, and is, “Oh I can just do this, I can write about these things, I can talk about people like me and we can be these weird monsters that society sees us as,” and Nightbreed is an extension of that.

A mashup of a humanoid with a pointed forehead and another person holding a small dog in their arms.
Simon Bamford:
Clive once told me that growing up gay you have two choices: you can either look at yourself as being wrong and society as being right or, that actually society is wrong. And if society is wrong then that frees you to question everything about society, and most people don’t grow up even questioning society. So it can actually be a very liberating experience. I think that’s very wise, Clive is very wise.

Nicholas Vince: Of course, the characters in Hellraiser are straight, this is not just limited to a gay experience. There are straight people that want to explore their sexuality in a pain-pleasure symbiosis. Again, that is liberating. Clive, in his writing, is very much writing about humanity in all its different forms. I’ve got a quote from Clive that he gave me, 3…4 years ago: “It’s not that the demon is different, it’s that difference is the demon.” Many of us struggle with difference, and society struggles with difference. This is the thing about fascism—when I was writing the Hellraiser comics, I spoke to Dan Chichester, the editor of those comics about this—although the cenobites very much represent sexual freedoms as we’ve discussed, there’s something about Leviathan that is trying to control and restrain and limit. Humanity is about chaos and difference and confusion. The evils, the fascist regimes, are the ones that control. That’s something I love about Clive’s writing, you often get this duality, the image of what you think you are looking back at you.

Simon Bamford: Talking about difference, the way that recently has been weaponized politically. Weaponizing difference and using it to control the populace. It’s sad, but it seems to be a very natural thing to fear the unknown and to fear difference. They’ve discovered, it’s a very easy thing to control differences, and control the way they think and the way they vote.

Nicholas Vince: It’s the 1930s all over again! I think this is what I find interesting, people thinking, “How did the Germans let it happen?!” I think the real terror of our situation is to think that people in the 1930s were different from us today, that they had a limited view or whatever. And of course, that’s not the case! Okay, the mechanics are different: I’m terrified by the fact that the world’s richest man has just taken over Twitter, which is now his plaything. It’ll be really interesting to see what happens with that. Major major social mechanism.

RW: If we’re talking about Hellraiser, you can look at characters like Doctor Channard from Hellraiser II. He is the definition of a culturally and socially controlling person, he is an embodiment of the medical state. The cenobites take him in because of a twisted sadism he has, or, well he takes himself.

Nicholas Vince: Well it’s really interesting, Riley, isn’t it because he represents the person trying to make people conform to “normality,” and that is the danger of mental health treatment. That people can be forced to become what is acceptable in society and therefore lose so much of themselves in the process. That is not to minimize mental health and mental illness, there’s some horrible terrible things that people need to be helped with, but it depends on the attitude of the physician.

Simon Bamford: Also Channard doesn’t want to be taken, he’s hiding behind glass screens, getting somebody else to open the box and take the punishment. But the cenobites see through that.

Nicholas Vince: But then he has that classic line: “To think…I hesitated” [laughs].

Dr Channard (Kenneth Cranham) as a Cenobite, his head grasped by a great tentacle and his face bound by horizontal parallel wires

RW: Moving on. The In Dreams Are Monsters blockbuster event is about social monsters in a lot of ways. It’s about the reasons that horror is coming to the fore today. As two professional monsters, what do you think about people’s reaction to horror now, and its renaissance of the last few years?

Nicholas Vince: I just would like to point out that I’m a monster in my off time as well.

[All laugh.]

Nicholas Vince: I don’t know if you’ve come across this, maybe you saw it, Simon, there was a study from one of the New York Universities pointing out the fact that people who enjoy horror movies were doing better in the pandemic than other people, because they were more used to dealing with fear, and there is something very cathartic about this form of entertainment. […] Kids like to be scared! Kids like ghost stories. The moment kids learn about death they become fascinated by it, is my experience of it […] being fascinated by ghost stories and the dark and why are we scared of the dark et cetera. Why is it? Because the world is so difficult. When the great Universal films were being released, King Kong in particular. […] King Kong stamping around New York has been [seen as] a metaphor for The Great Depression.

There seem to be two forms of entertainment: musicals “let’s lift our spirits! We can tap our troubles away!” and then there’s the other part of saying, “No actually, this is really scary, how do I deal with fear? What outlets are there to help me deal with fear?”

Simon Bamford: Well, I had two days recently at Thorpe Park…

[All laugh]

Simon Bamford: …and it just made me feel, after the last three years, it made me feel so alive! I think that is it. I suppose the fear in a horror film is more encompassing […] but at the end of the day it makes you feel scared, and feeling scared makes me, anyway, feel alive. I think it was all the more energizing from the fact that in the last three years we’ve all felt slightly dead.

[Nick laughs.]

Nicholas Vince: Sorry, the reason I’m laughing is because one of the most terrifying incidents in my life is watching Simon, who I know loves rollercoasters, going on a rollercoaster in Germany at a Christmas fair. Me, standing on the ground with…Gunnar, Gunnar Hansen [Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre], watching you, and you can clearly see this thing waving around […] temporary struts, rickety as hell. Gunnar and I going, “Oh my god! Are we gonna see him again?”

RW: Well that’s the thrill of horror, isn’t it? Watching people suffer through claptrap contraptions!

[All laugh.]

Nicholas Vince: Back in 2012, I went to see Cabin in the Woods, sitting there with the first horror movie I’ve seen in the cinema for many many years was just amazing. That’s what Simon was saying, the catharsis of the terror and the release and sharing that with people.

Simon Bamford: It’s the sharing as well, that’s the same with the theme park as well, sharing it with strangers. It’s a kind of bonding experience, […] those jump moments where everyone screams, everybody does it together and everybody’s suddenly bonded. From COVID, it’s something we all need is to feel connected.

RW: Simon, you’re a stage man. Was there a draw to Barker’s work? The theory calls him “splatterpunk,” he’s very bombastic, but he’s also very delicate with his words, with his production, and direction. Is that something you were drawn to?

Simon Bamford: I think so yeah, I met Clive in drama school, he wasn’t there but he saw me there. I joined his fringe theatre company, and they were doing a production of Frankenstein in Love. I think that rather than splatter, I think love is the major theme that goes through all of Clive’s works. Everything he does is really based in love […] if you look at any of his work, there’s love there to start with, which is a great and unusual place to start. But yes, his brain and his intellect and his…strange way of looking at life, attracted me to everything he was doing. […] Even in Frankenstein in Love he had a “skinned man” which was the early Frank, so he was playing with those themes. […] So yeah, like Nick, I was always very interested in horror to start with […] I always tried to peek a look at the Fangoria magazines on the top shelf at the newsagents rather than the girly magazines that everyone else was trying to look at. So there were early signs there [laughs]. […]

The skinless Frank approaches an offscreen Julia, touching her hand to his

RW: Nicholas, you’re very in tune with the horror fandom with your podcast, and with everything, you do being deeply entrenched in it. What’s your take on the direction the horror fandom has been taking in terms of a celebration of romantic horror films like Hellraiser?

Nicholas Vince: I’d start with theatre. For the last five years, I’ve been a patron of the London Horror Festival, for which I adapted a couple of my short stories, and I did a one-man show about being in Hellraiser and being monsters and so on. I’m a firm believer in stage horror being something that’s incredibly visceral. There’s something about it being up on the big screen, but if you’re in a small room with about 30 other people and it’s happening three feet from you, that is a very different experience. The question about fandom is also very interesting, the experience of Simon and I since the tenth anniversary of Hellraiser when we were first invited across to America, to Boston, for a […] celebration of [the film], I found it absolutely fascinating. Because without the support of the fans, we wouldn’t be up here talking to you.

I was up in Sheffield a few months ago and spoke to an awful lot of people about it, and […] one guy turned up with his mother and he was in full drag…he was I mean, absolutely…he’d obviously spent an hour or so preparing for it. The other place that I tend to see it is at Frightfest […] because the fans are really passionate about horror films, and they’re really passionate about new talent as well. I think it’s long been recognized that if you want to start out in the movies and want the chance of spending a little money but making a lot of money, then the genre’s probably going to be horror—because horror fans are really supportive of new talent.

I was talking to David [Howard Thornton; Art the Clown] from the Terrifier films, and we were discussing the fact that after Terrifier 1, I first met him at a convention. He was definitely there banging the drum for Terrifier, and he said the first time he’d been to a convention he was absolutely astounded to see that there was already merchandise with Art the Clown on it, people were already having tattoos of Art the Clown. […] I do find it absolutely fascinating that people are so committed to this experience that they will tattoo on their skin Butterball, Pinhead, Female Cenobite, Chatterer. I always regard it as a “horror family” whenever I go to Frightfest. It’s like, literally, there will be people who I do not see year-to-year and we just pick up from the last time we were there and we go and watch films together and we talk about them in the pub. It’s a real, real community. We were talking about difference, there is nothing as accepting in my experience as the horror community.

I will just say, I am reminded of the time when I was at a horror convention and realized that in that hotel one of their conference rooms was booked by a church every Sunday [laughs]. It’s just like…we were incredibly welcoming to them but they didn’t look at us the same way!

Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton), soaked in blood and grinning ear-to-ear holding a scalpel

RW: It’s interesting that you say that because I think horror fans are a sucker for a good costume and Art the Clown and The Chatterer and Butterball are just such iconic costumes, and Chatterer’s got the *click click click* noise as well. There’s something about that isn’t there? There’s almost for me a kind of childish play: these are just action figures and you bang them together but it’s great fun and there’s blood everywhere. [All laugh.] But that’s my take, I don’t know what yours is!

Simon Bamford: [Jane Wildgoose] did such a beautiful job on [the cenobite costumes], and the way the costume is just intertwined with the skin and the hooks, so they’re not just wearing the costumes they’re actually attached to the costumes as well. Again just this wonderful leap of imagination. […] [Clive] was chatting to every different department on the film, coming up with great ideas, but then really encouraging them to go much further themselves, and go beyond what they thought could be done or should be done, and then you could always draw it back in. I think Jane did a fantastic job with those. And they were all different, the three of us, we had skirts which you never really see in the film but they were like sequins. So our skirts had, like, silver sequins all over them, which was the most strange thing! And yours was different, wasn’t it, it was like this skin tight…

Nicholas Vince: Skin-tight trousers and jacket, yeah.

Simon Bamford: Lots of boiled leather.

Nicholas Vince: Yeah, yeah. I think yours was basically supposed to represent chainmail possibly. […] Priests, basically, you look like priests.

RW: Very strange, very fleshy priests [all laugh], but we love them all the same!

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Written by Riley Wade

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