Collins’ Crypt: Book Vs. Movie - HELLRAISER

BC reads Clive Barker's novella to see how it holds up to the 1987 horror film. 

It was sometime after Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth came to video that I finally introduced myself to Clive Barker's world of Pinhead, the Lament Configuration, and lots and lots of people who loved to have sex. I recall it was over a Christmas break that I rented the first three films, putting me at about 13 and in my 8th and final year of Catholic grade school. However, I didn't care much for it at the time; I may have been getting to "that" age where all of the sexual subject matter would have appealed to me, but the more adult themes went a bit over my head, and it was also nothing like I was expecting - I thought Pinhead was a Freddy-like boogeyman who murdered folks! Who's this Julia lady doing all of the killing?

The sequels appealed more to my sensibilities at the time; it wasn't until I actually got around to watching the entire movie again in 2008 (!) that I realized the original is indeed the best (though Hellbound comes close). With a fresh and much more mature pair of eyes I understood just how damn well the movie works, teasing us with glimpses of the Cenobites and brilliantly using them as a mere device within a tale of domestic horror. You could actually remove them from the story entirely and there would still be enough for a solid horror film about a woman going to extreme ends (namely: the casual murder of a few poor horny guys) in order to resurrect her lover - who also happens to be her brother-in-law.

Indeed, as anyone with Pinhead tattooed on his arm or back will tell you, the character (only named "Lead Cenobite" in this first film) barely appears in the movie at all - his screentime hovers at around five minutes, and he's only the "Lead" compared to the other three because he gets to talk. During the film's big action climax, he disappears entirely: the "Chatterer" and "Butterball" characters provide the on-screen thrills as Kirsty makes her way out of the house of horrors. And there's no real introduction for the big guy either; he just appears nonchalantly in an early, nearly wordless sequence where he and the other Cenobites survey the discarded flesh of Frank (Sean Chapman), and doesn't appear again until the top of the third act.

For years, I've been curious if Pinhead's sparse appearances were the same in the source novella or just a necessity for the low budget production. With only a million bucks at their disposal, it couldn't very well have been a full-blown monster fest like Barker's followup film Nightbreed, so did Pinhead's role take a backseat because of that, or was he never in it all that much to begin with? So I finally cracked open the copy of "The Hellbound Heart" that I bought a few years ago and never got around to reading, and read it in two sittings since even though it's 160 or so pages, because the point size is like that of a children's book (understandable; it was originally published in an anthology series called "Night Visions" - which was edited by none other than George RR Martin! - and thus not designed as a full, standalone novel).

And I was inspired to do so because of the screening of the first film at the Cinemayhem Festival held at Jumpcut Cafe in Los Angeles this past weekend. Spanning March 28-30th, each night (after the cafe had closed for regular business) would treat guests to a movie and a Q&A featuring personnel from the film. Night #1 offered John Carpenter's The Fog, with the master himself offering one of his usual hilariously blunt discussions, and Night #2 was the silly '80s horror-comedy Vamp, featuring a ton of cast and crew. Hellraiser was the third and final film, and featured a surprise appearance from Doug Bradley, in town for the same weekend's Monsterpalooza fest (there was also a horror festival going on at the New Beverly - this was a very October-ish weekend in Los Angeles). It had been five years since I last watched the film, and I also realized that I've never actually written about the series in any detail for a Crypt column. So here we are.

After finishing the book post-screening, I walked away with an even deeper appreciation for Barker as a filmmaker, a skill that is usually overshadowed by his well-deserved acclaim as a writer and artist. He's only made three films, and one of them was pretty mangled by the studio (Nightbreed), so it's hard to even include it. But even though Hellraiser was his first feature, and based on one of his own stories, he displays an ability that many filmmakers lack when adapting a book (even when it's not their own): knowing that it's OK to change something from the source material if translating directly would make for an underwhelming cinematic sequence. In the novel, Frank is torn apart (as in the film), but after that Kirsty sees Julia's body, has a brief, non-violent encounter with The Engineer (the monstrous thing that makes two appearances in the film, first chasing Kirsty down a hallway while she's in the hospital), and then exits. A figure hands her back the puzzle box, and she realizes that while Julia and Frank are damned to its powers, Rory (Larry in the film) is not, and walks off with hope that she can find another puzzle box that can free him.

In the film, things play out quite differently; the other Cenobites attack her as she tries to get out of the house, and the Engineer makes another threatening appearance. Her boyfriend (a character invented for the film) comes to the rescue, and the house begins crashing down around them - it's like an homage to a Hammer or Corman/Poe film from the '60s in that regard. As for the box, the homeless Rob Zombie guy we've seen a few times (most memorably eating bugs at Kirsty's pet store) turns into a dragon monster thing and flies away with it, seemingly returning it to the Asian man who sold it to Frank at the film's beginning. So in addition to more action, the book's ending paves the way for a sequel involving Kirsty and Rory, but the movie suggests that their story is over and that future installments would focus on other owners of the box. Which is eventually what happened, but the first and best sequel did indeed continue Kirsty's story (though not Rory/Larry's). I don't know for sure that having a more exciting finale was Barker's reason for changing it, but it doesn't matter: even his first time out, and using his own words as the source, he seemingly understood that sometimes it makes sense to change things for one reason or another. If only comic book fans had half of his intelligence, there wouldn't be 300+ comments on every post about the casting of a comic book movie.

He also made another huge change besides Rory's name (the others are all the same): in the book, Kirsty is not his daughter. In fact it's not really clear how they're related at all - she's a younger friend, I guess? Like a Gal Friday? Not his daughter at any rate, though she shares the same cold relationship with Julia, and more or less has the same character arc. Again, the boyfriend isn't around, and if she works at a pet store it never comes up, but she still discovers Julia's penchant for bringing home men to kill for Frank, and tries to rescue Rory/Larry without realizing he's already been replaced by him. Despite the drastic change in her character, some scenes play out identically, such as the hospital sequence (save for the Engineer chase), with the doctor inexplicably giving her the puzzle box to "jog her memory" and her making the deal with the Cenobites.

Other differences are minor; the Cenobites have an extended introduction when Frank first opens the box - rather than just see the aftermath of his eventual escape (as in the film), we read how they got him in the first place. Pinhead's character isn't given a name of course, though his description more or less matches what we'd come to know from the nine films and counting (the only difference of note is that his tongue is said to have been given the same grid-like pattern of pins as his head), and the other Cenobites are more or less recognizable from description as their big-screen counterparts. Frank discusses a character named Kircher who first told him about the box (named the "Lemarchand" Configuration in the book, instead of "Lament") and its inhabitants, the film has no equal but since he is only discussed and never seen it makes sense that he'd be omitted. There's also a touch that actually should have been retained for the film: when Rory cuts his hand and the blood spills on the floor, it mixes with a load of spunk that Frank had left there while being overcome with pleasure and pain sensations from the Cenobites. I'm sure the censors would have had it cut anyway (most of their demands revolved around scenes involving sexual pleasure mixed with violence), but it would have reduced the randomness of Frank's rebirth.

Otherwise it plays out pretty much exactly the same, with the occasional minor difference being of no concern (Julia uses a knife in the book, a hammer in the film). And while Pinhead and co. do seemingly have a bit more "screentime" in the novel, I was surprised to discover that my theory about budgetary confinement was way wrong - the movie has more action/FX and a new monster! Sure, the Engineer's presence on screen is a bit hokey and probably wasn't necessary, but it probably got a few more butts in seats thanks to its glimpses in the trailer - 1987 was a huge time for big slimy monsters, after all, and there weren't any big stars in the cast. Hell, even Barker's name carried little weight with moviegoers back then; the less literate horror fans would probably only know him as the screenwriter of the less-than-great Rawhead Rex.

In short, the film and book complement each other quite nicely; the book offers Barker's lyrical prose and descriptions that the film cannot provide (such as the fact that the cenobites smell of vanilla), while the movie offers the same scenario but aided by Christopher Young's incredible score and Bob Keen's impressive makeup that might even top what your mind had cooked up from reading the brief descriptions. Some changes are for the better (Kirsty being the daughter is easier to digest than some worried friend), others are not (she didn't need a boyfriend with a hideous '80s shirt), making it the rare occasion where I cannot definitively say if one is better than the other. And while I wish Clive had directed more often, if it came at the expense of one of his novels or some of his impressive artwork (some of which hung on the walls at the Jumpcut while we watched the movie, a wonderful and unique bonus), maybe it's for the best that he has seemingly given up the directorial side of things, even if he proved to be pretty damn good at it.