When writer and director Clive barker decided to adapt his novel The infernal heart for the big screen, he had a very definite characterization for his enigmatic characters, known as Cenobites. In his notes, Barker pointed out that the Cenobites had a demonic appearance, using the term “repulsive glamor” to describe the aesthetic. Despite this alien and tortured appearance, the Cenobites in the original Hellraiser the films were refined in their demeanor and were not outwardly violent without motive. The speaking member of the Cenobites from the original film, named “The Hell Priest” by Barker and “Pinhead” by the growing fandom, would become the most recognizable face of the movie. Hellraiser franchise.
The characterization of Pinhead in Hellraiser started as a reflection. Despite his appearance, Pinhead was not malicious and his violence is targeted with determination. However, over the course of nine sequential films, Barker’s characterization of the enigmatic sadomasochist got lost in a tangle of mismanagement by various sequel rights holders and the conflicting views of many directors and writers. A character who started out with a unique and mysterious personality has turned into another evil villain who is just looking to cause pain.
Where did things take a turn? To answer this question, it is worth looking at the history of Hellraiser and Pinhead’s relationship with the franchise.
The original Pinhead character: Hellraiser (1987)
Summoned via the wicked puzzle box known as Configuration Lament, Pinhead (Doug Bradley) is responsible alongside his fellow Cenobites Chatterer (Nicolas vince), Open (Grace Kirby) and Butterball (Simon bamford) with the capture of the protagonist Kirsty Cotton (ALaurence shley) and taking him to hell. However, Kirsty makes a deal with the Cenobites, offering to help them capture her uncle Frank (Sean Chapman / Oliver Smith) who had escaped hell and became a cannibalistic creature determined to restore his body. Weighing their options, Pinhead agreed to the deal, and the otherworldly masochist group managed to tear Frank apart limb by limb with hooks and chains.
Still obligated to their unknown duty, Pinhead reneged on her deal with Kirsty, but was banned alongside her fellow Cenobites as she reversed the puzzle box solution. Although he goes back on his word, Pinhead in the original Hellraiser was tactful, calm, and only killed where his obligations warranted, albeit horribly. The character’s mysterious air was best summed up by a line spoken by Pinhead in the final act. When Kirsty asks the Cenobites who they are, Pinhead responds:
“Explorers in other regions experience. Demons for some, angels for others.
Barker’s original portrayal of Pinhead and the Cenobites portray them as otherworldly pursuers instead of relentless murderers. Sadly, Barker’s lack of involvement in the film’s sequels would be revealing, as the characterization of Pinhead and the Cenobites quickly drifted away from their curious and unique roots.
The Murderous Megalomaniac: Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992) and Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)
With the involvement of Clive Barker in the rearview mirror after Hell: Hellraiser II (1988), Pinhead’s character took a menacing turn. Having been brought back to his original human form Elliott Spencer, Pinhead was killed in action and trapped in a McGuffin known as the “Pillar of Souls”, giving the director Anthony hickox (Wax) and writers Peter Atkins and Tony Randel (who also directed Hellraiser II) free license to play with the character of Pinhead. Freed from his human side by some form of soul pillar witchcraft in Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, Pinhead begins gorging on victims to escape his rectangular prison, leading to a nightclub rampage where he indiscriminately slaughters club patrons and turns a number of them into cenobites.
Even after merging again with his human aspect, Pinhead’s behavior changes little in Hellraiser: Bloodline, which inexplicably takes the Hellraiser setting in the future and in space (beating Jason x with the five-year mark). In partnership with the demonic princess of Hell Angelique (Valentina Vargas), Pinhead seeks to open an eternal portal from Hell to Earth in order to conquer it and kill all obstacles in its path. If this motivation seems incredibly played out, it’s because it is. Predictably, Pinhead attempts to manipulate and murder his path to world domination, leaving little room for any kind of imagination or character building.
After being left on an exploding space station and encountering her disappearance (again), the audience decided they had seen enough. Hellraiser: Bloodline would mark the end of the Hellraiser theatrical releases of the franchise. Director and phenomenon of special effects Kevin Yagher took credit from the film, showing how far the series had fallen. Critics blasted both Hellraiser III and Line, with Washington Post writer Richard Harrington noting “If (Doug Bradley) had the same writers as Sylvester stallone and Arnold schwarzenegger, he could be Punhead.
This era of Pinhead’s character opened the floodgates to more fuzzy interpretations. Future iterations wouldn’t do much to revert to Clive Barker’s original vision, if at all. It’s a good thing that the future Hellraiser the sequels did not reach theaters because his flagship character became unrecognizable from his first performance.
The era of direct video and today: Hellraiser: Inferno (2000) to Hellraiser: Judgment (2018) and beyond
As you might expect, the new millennium hasn’t given the Hellraiser franchise the warmest welcome. Doug Bradley to step down as Pinhead by 2011 Hellraiser: Revelations, leaving even longtime fans with a sour taste in their mouths. Even Bradley’s veteran on-screen presence as the infamous Cenobite wouldn’t be enough to spare the 2000s Hellraiser films of the wrath of critics and viewers. Hellraiser: Inferno (2000) lacked substantial Pinhead screen time and any thematic value, deplores Matthew Foster. Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002) sought to bring Ashley Laurence back as Kirsty, but the ambiguous dream state of the two Hell and Seeker of Hell relegated Pinhead’s violence to ambiguity, placing the character in an almost rudimentary role. Pinhead shows up, tears up some people with chains, marries a vague cue, and then the audience waits to see if the violence was real or imagined.
Subsequent iterations did a lot to improve the public perception of Pinhead. Although an iconic face in horror at this point, Pinhead’s inclusions in Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005), Revelations and Hellraiser: Judgment (2018), saw him bounce between personalities, only serving to convolute his image. In fact, Clive Barker even wrote a sequel to The infernal heart, entitled The Scarlet Gospels in order to give fans of his work a bona fide and genuine continuation for Pinhead, whom Barker had officially named “The Hell Priest”, having hated the Pinhead moniker for years. While fans of Barker’s original vision appealed to it, many horror movie fans were left behind.
Following the path of many long-standing horror franchises, the director David Bruckner (The night house) is now directing a remake of Hellraiser for the Hulu streaming platform. In addition, Barker returned to Hellraiser franchise to produce a new series for HBO, initially directed by David Gordon Green (Halloween (2018), Halloween kills) before forwarding future episodes to others. While Barker is back, it’s unclear how involved he will be with the HBO project. Plus, Doug Bradley was mom to come back as his best known character.
These new entries in the Hellraiser the myth serves to right the ship and bring Pinhead / The Hell Priest back to its unusual and sophisticated roots? At the moment, it’s unclear, but it wouldn’t take much to point things for Clive Barker’s iconic character in the right direction. From the start of this decade-long horror series, all that has been asked for has been some consistency for its most central character.
Pinhead was a devil to some and an angel to others, and I hope viewers can come back to that ambiguity.
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