I first became obsessed with horror movies in the labyrinth of Blockbuster Video. Wandering between aisles like an occultist seeking forbidden lore, I’d nervously glance at tapes featuring snarling demons, psychopathic killers, and monstrous beings beyond my childish imagination.
While I was too young to rent these tapes (and would have been too frightened to watch them anyway), they left an indelible mark on my psyche; I needed to know more about them. So as I got older and bolder, I became a monster hunter, tracking down the movies that’d haunted my Friday night trips to the video store.
I fell in love with the babysitter butchering Michael Myers, chuckled at Freddy Krueger’s one-liners, and rolled my eyes in boredom as Jason Voorhees killed another horny teen. Yet one monster truly got under my skin: Pinhead, the star of the Hellraiser movies and high priest of Hell.
Directed by Clive Barker, Hellraiser tells the story of Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman), a hedonist who’s grown bored with earthly pleasures and is seeking more. To satisfy his appetites, he turns to interdimensional beings known as Cenobites, led by Pinhead (Doug Bradley), who take him away to experience the pleasures of Hell. When Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) moves into the old family home, bringing with him Julia (Clare Higgins) — with whom Frank had an affair — the devious hellraiser sees a way to escape his torturers.
Honestly, Hellraiser has been a minor obsession of mine for years. I simply adore the fact it’s more of a twisted love story than a slasher, how grisly it is without resorting to splatter porn, and most of all, I love Pinhead and the Cenobites. I’m far from the only one to be hooked by this wonderfully weird movie (the Hellraiser focussed group chat I’m in, ‘Ultimate Pleasure with the Boys’, proves that), but why does low-budget cosmic body horror about the perils of experience hold such a grip on millions of fans across the globe?
“First and foremost, Clive Barker’s incredible brain and imagination,” explains Simon Bamford, who played the Cenobite Butterball, when I asked him about Hellraiser’s enduring legacy. “The term genius is bandied about too much these days, but he is one. He’s just the most incredible person to meet. He’s so clever in the way he thinks.”
“I think the fact that the film is so tight, there’s nothing extraneous, it’s his storyteller technique,” he continued. “Everything moves the story along. Every scene is there for a reason. Nothing is just padding.”
Finally, Bamford believes that Clare Higgins’s “effortless” performance as the unhinged Julia, a femme fatale who spends most of the film leading men to Frank so he can regenerate, is the monster movie’s secret weapon.
Nicholas Vince — who played Chatterer, possibly the most terrifying of the Cenobites and easily the most popular aside from Pinhead — agreed with Bamford about Higgins’s performance. However, he also believes the ensemble nature of the cast is one of the film’s greatest strengths.
“The other person who really helped sell the film is Andrew Robinson,” Vince began. “Because his performance as both Larry and Frank is masterful and Ashley Laurence, playing Kirsty, I think the great thing is, not to detract from Claire’s performance at all, but what I like about [Hellraiser], is that it feels like an ensemble piece.”
Modesty prevented either Vince or Bamford from saying the Cenobites were a reason for the film’s success, but let’s be honest, these strange creatures who promise indivisible pain and pleasure captured the imagination of fans and bound it in barbed chains. Indeed, Barker had planned on making Julia the monster in future sequels, but Pinhead and his fellow pilgrim on the path of experience held too much power over viewers.
“It comes down to that quote; angels to some, demons to others,” says Vince when I asked the pair what had made the Cenobites such a captivating presence in Barker’s work. “I think it’s an important twist. To look at [the Cenobites], we’re obviously demons, but to some, we’re angels.” To Vince, the Cenobites aren’t like other horror movie monsters; they’re simply serving their abominable function.
“They really are just the people who have got a very unusual job,” added Bamford, agreeing with his co-star. “They’re doing their duty; they’re not evil, per se. They’re doing what they are, what they have to do, and they don’t have a choice in it.”
While Bamford and Vince are right that the Cenobites aren’t evil in the same way Michael Myers is, they are undeniably monstrous creatures. So it took a lot of prosthetic work to bring Butterball and Chatterer to life, and both admitted this posed something of a challenge when acting on a busy film set.
“We couldn’t see what we looked like in the mirror, we couldn’t see each other, we couldn’t see the set,” laughed Bamford. “We were introduced to the rest of the cast at the wrap party because they didn’t know what we actually looked like as actors.”
“It was really tough,” added Vince. “This was our first film, so we didn’t really know what to expect. My first shot was me arriving at the hospital and grabbing Kirsty. My clear memory is the same, as we really couldn’t see or hear it because there was like that much latex wrapped around my ears.”
“I remember you could hear a bit as long as they were standing next to you,” he laughed. “We had difficulties doing these things. That was challenging, but like all these things, we all adapted very quickly and learned what needs to be done in order to get the shots.”
Indeed Bamford shared that the first time the crew saw the Cenobites, they looked less like a procession from Hell and more like blind penguins wobbling around the set.
“The first day on set, word hadn’t gotten through to the crew that we were blind,” Bamford explained. “Even Doug, once he got these black contact lenses in, on a gloomy set, was pretty much blind as well. So we were all led onto the set by our makeup handlers.”
“They tried to get through [to the crew] that we were blind, but they just didn’t seem to hear it,” he continued. “So the very first take, we could barely hear them saying ‘action’, so we all just kind of wandered off in completely the wrong direction. I think you could sense that the crew were thinking who the Hell are these guys?”
Having blind abominations forced the crew to get creative when it came to helping Vince and Bamford find their marks. “They had draft excluders on the floor,” Bamford laughed. “You know, the big ones at the bottom of doors, they would point us in the direction that we were supposed to be moving, and then they’d say action, and we shuffle forward until we could feel the draught excluder with our feet, that’s how we hit our marks.”
Of course, 35 years on, both men could look back at the experience and laugh, but Vince admitted some degree of frustration at the time. “There were notably a couple of days when I was in my full makeup for eight hours. Then they didn’t film me,” he said. “Nice for my bank account, but really frustrating at the time.” Even worse, the prosthetics meant that neither Bamford nor Vince could talk, and so all the dialogue in the ‘80s movie went to Pinhead and the Female Cenobite.
“I had dialogue in the original script. It was actually given to the Female Cenobite,” Bamford said. “It was ‘Perhaps we prefer you’, but it was all Ps and Bs. And once they put dentures in, I couldn’t close my mouth, and with Ps and Bs, you can’t say without putting your lips together.”
“So I told them as we were heading to the set, and they all went away in a huddle,” he continued. “I could hear them chatting about whether they could do ADR afterwards. But there was no budget for post-dubbing. So they decided the best thing to do would be to take my lines away and give them to the Female Cenobite, which I was gutted about. I went away for a weep in my costume as my final bit of dignity had been removed. And nobody noticed, so yeah. What’s the line? ‘No more suffering. It’s a waste of good tears’? That was me [laughs].”
“I knew I was never going to have lines,” added Vince. “I was never given lines. I felt for Simon. I really did because it was our first film. And you know, I was gonna say they removed the only bit of proper acting you’re likely to do, not to denigrate what we did as actors in that film at all, but it’s kind of what it must have felt like at the time.”
Still, neither Vince nor Bamford holds any ill will to the franchise. In fact, they revel in its dedicated fanbase. “I think we’re all lucky. I think we all have our own fans,” said Vince. “We’re all the favourites. My fans call themselves ‘Chatterites’. It’s a name they gave themselves, which I think is wonderful. I think we’re very, very lucky that there are people who are enthusiasts about the work.”
In Dreams Are Monsters is a major UK-wide film and events season at BFI Southbank, BFI IMAX, in cinemas across the UK, on Blu-ray and on BFI Player.