I used to joke for the longest time that I was a hopeless romantic searching for a wonton strumpet (hey, they make t-shirts for that). Then one day I realized that I probably wasn’t far off from the truth, and that’s just depressing. Nothing, however, will make you quite so depressed as the feeling you get while watching Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. You see, it’s not just the physical act of sex that’s out to get you in this one. Nope. Clive goes for something truly amazing: that while going on the physical will get you into trouble, the action of falling in love will do even greater harm to more people. Nothing typifies this more than the story of Frank (Sean Chapman, and later, Oliver Smith) and Julia (Clare Higgins).
Frank’s domain is that of the physical, which has its implications of mortal destruction. The first line of the film is, “What’s your pleasure, Mr. Cotton?” which sets the tone for the entire movie. His intention is to use the puzzle box in order to give himself an intense physical experience; what he gets is the extreme version of sadomasochism, which results in his body being shredded by the Cenobites. The Cenobites are, in their own words, “explorers from another region,” who define pain and pleasure as “indivisible.” What’s led Frank to this? A sense that, in his own words, the sex that he seeks is “never enough.” Frank, in this respect, is like the Cenobites: he needs something else, something more, something new and undiscovered, in order to get off. It’s the appetites for pornographic statues, pictures, and affairs that has led him to the place of requiring an even further extreme in order to get off. The problem is that Frank doesn’t bank on the pain prospect of the sexual experience – he’s merely looking for a new physical high while disregarding the existence of the low. For anyone that believes in a sense of balance, you’ll recognize that this mentality is out of alignment with the notion of a compliment to whatever it is you’re seeking. It’s like an extreme version of Eastern philosophy: with exquisite pleasure comes a degree of suffering. For some – including the Cenobites – these two pieces simply must go together. Therefore, truly mind-blowing sex must have the consequence of extraordinary physical pain.
But wait, there’s more!
Much like the complimentary notion of pain and pleasure coexisting as opposite ends of the sensation spectrum, we also get the harmful nature of emotional attachment versus detachment. For this, we must look toward Julia. Julia is frosty on a good day toward husband Larry (Andrew Robinson) and stepdaughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), but she sure as hell loves Frank. Frank seduced his brother’s wife and had sex with her on her wedding dress (because class), which earned her undying love and devotion. Years later, she still holds a candle for him, as evident when she visibly displays a hopeful facial expression at the thought of him slumming it at her new home. She tears off the head of another woman when she finds a photograph of Frank, slipping the image of him that’s not engaged in a sex act into her pocket. In flashbacks, she tells Frank, “I’ll do anything you want. Anything!” She gets to make good on this promise, as she lures men back to her home in order to murder them and offer them up to Frank for his regeneration. Frank manipulates her right into doing what he wants: he tells her that they’re tied together, and that she is healing him, making her the caretaker. Only Julia can make him better by killing for him, and he uses this to get what he wants with little regard for Julia in the long run. When she is stabbed and is dying, Frank seizes the opportunity for more blood, telling her, “Nothing personal, baby.” Frank finally clues her in on something we’ve all guessed at this point: he doesn’t care for Julia in the least. All he wants is what she can do for him, which is the restoration of his body so that he can experience more pleasure. She’s a stepping stone, not a person. In essence, she’s punished for having feelings for him.
That is a fairly grim statement on the extremes we’re willing to endure for someone we love. Julia is at first horrified by Frank’s appearance, but he appeals to her by preying upon her emotional attachment. For her part, Julia throws herself into this, ignoring the warning signs of a man that engages in compulsive sex. It’s not even that Frank is clearly a sex addict – I’m not condemning him for wanting to get off as often as he can with as many people as he can; for some, that’s the dream, and I’m not here to judge that. What I side-eye is the fact that he clearly has no interest in anything other than his pursuit, as he allows people to be murdered and threatens to rape his niece in the name of slaking his lust. Here’s a grim fact of the scenario, though: while Frank destroys himself by seeking more physical pleasure, it’s what Julia does in the name of love that causes the most damage. As much as Frank’s lot sucks, it’s only hurting him when he opens the box: it’s his body that gets sliced, his soul that’s trapped in hell. If Julia had refused to help him, he would have endured the punishment for his transgressions alone; no one else would have had to suffer. However, it’s Julia’s extreme idealization and emotional attachment that causes the deaths of multiple men, including her husband. It’s her drive to win the affection of Frank that causes her to bring torment to others; more people are impacted by her acts of love and devotion than by Frank’s core action of opening the box. In the end, the physical is limited, but the damage caused by the heart… that’s what crafts the more daunting blows.
In this respect, the Cenobites were correct in declaring pain and pleasure as inseparable. They feed off of each other in symbiosis, dependent in order to perpetuate one another. In the example of Hellraiser, though, what is in plain sight cannot be denied: while the physical can bring great pleasure and great pain, it is sometimes the emotional attachments that can cause the greatest amount of damage in terms of our actions and their consequences. The heart is hellbound indeed.