In Which I Am Impossibly Dense: Hellraiser Edition

I first watched Hellraiser when I was 18. I watched it with a friend who was older than me and whom I still see occasionally. He insisted that we watch the movie at a very loud volume in a very small room which, as it turns out, is a very good way to watch the movie. I thought it was very good.

In the intervening years – so many intervening years – I have revisited Hellraiser on several occasions and every time I do so, I always come to the same conclusion, “This mostly holds up, at least as far as horror movies go.” Why I’m saying this out loud, I’ll never know, but there it is. My fandom has waned as I’ve gotten older and lost the stomach for human suffering necessary to enjoy horror, but upon discovering a podcast called the Faculty of Horror, I listened to its Hellraiser episode and it rekindled my love for the franchise. My like for the franchise. My toleration of the franchise. My acceptance of the franchise’s first movie and a bit of the sequel and none of the rest of them because holy god, it’s like these writers and directors were intentionally trying to ruin things.

Anyway.

Here’s a quick recap of Hellraiser that you didn’t ask for – there is a puzzle box* that, properly worked, opens a portal to a world occupied by Cenobites, which is just a fancy term for monster. The Cenobites are those who have previously solved the box, and although later films introduce all manner of impossibly stupid variations, the original four are Lead Cenobite (colloquially known as Pinhead), Chatterer, Butterball, and Female Cenobite. Those who attempt to open the box do so because they are promised unimaginable sexual ecstasy as their reward. Those who do open it are greeted by the Cenobites, former humans whose pursuit of pleasure lead them so deeply into sadomasochistic sex that they are now unable to differentiate suffering from pleasure.

So, now might be a good time to take a break and recap the previous paragraph thusly: Hellraiser is a lot about sex. Like, a lot. You can see that I’ve italicized –a lot- in an attempt to emphasize just how much about sex Hellraiser is. And that second time, I used those hyphen thingies that I sometimes see other writers using. So, anyway, it’s about sex. Remember that.

Please also remember that I knew that it was about sex. If you’d asked me, I would have gone on about the movie being Clive Barker‘s sneaky way of getting his own sadomasochism onto the big screen, and how that was something that I always appreciated about the movie, not because of any personal interest in sadomasochism, but because I happen to occasionally have a passing interest in subversive activity. We all have our hobbies.

Here now is my favorite scene from the movie:

Hellraiser Pinhead "The box you opened it"

Now, if you’d asked me three weeks ago – why would you have done that? – I would have told you that my favorite part about the movies was that those who messed around with the box got what they deserved. The odious Frank Cotton (the real bad guy from the first movie) acknowledges as much when he says he opened the box pursuing pleasures he could no longer find on Earth. That those pleasures were eventually his undoing (SPOILER ALERT!) is a nice bit of storytelling. There’s something appealing about those going asking for it getting what they deserve.

But, uh, there I was three weeks ago, listening to the Horror Faculty’s podcast. And I was thinking about my favorite scene from the movie as the podcast’s two academics spoke at length about the movie’s sexual undertones.

“The box. You opened it. We came.”

I’ve always focused on that middle portion. “Everything that’s about to happen?” they’re essentially saying. “That’s your fault.” But then there’s that last part, which I’d always heard as nothing more than, “…and that’s why we’re standing here. Physically. Us standing here physically. Just four best friends, standing here, now, because of you.”

But that’s not what they’re saying! That’s not what they’re saying at all! I first saw this movie sixteen years ago and it took me literally sixteen years to figure out that, at the barest of minimums, it is very, very easy to understand a second possible meaning of “We came.” In fact, it’s almost unreasonable to come (tee hee) away from the movie with the understanding that I had enjoyed for those sixteen years. It’s a movie about the pursuit of sexual ecstasy to the point of death and yet it never dawned on me that Pinhead’s “We came.” might have been meant not in the physical sense, but rather, in the sexual one. How is that possible? And more importantly, how often has this sort of braindead density occurred in my life?

Anyway, Happy Halloween.

*The Lemarchand’s Box**, if you must know, you dorkus.

**It is also known as the Lament Configuration, in case you weren’t enough of a dorkus malorkus*** already.

***That’s Latin for dorkus.


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38 thoughts on “In Which I Am Impossibly Dense: Hellraiser Edition

  1. I’ve never seen this movie. But I routinely come across other meanings of things and go, “Holy shit… it took me how long to figure that out?”

    Like, I only recently figured out why Barnes and Noble calls their e-reader a Nook. Like, last month.

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    • I remember suddenly becoming aware of the fact that Belloq knew Marion from before.

      I knew that Belloq and Indy were long time rivals, and I knew that the subtext indicated that they might have literally gone to school with each other (this has since been revealed as canon), but for years it just didn’t really occur to me that the reason why Belloq and Marion *have the dialogue they have* when he comes to have dinner with her in the tent is because Belloq knew her from back when he was in school with Indy (this is actually not canon at all, but I stand by it).

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      • It took me a couple of watchings, way back when, to figure out both how Belloq had gotten a copy of the medallion, and why the copy led them to dig in the wrong place.

        I feel a little embarrassed admitting this.

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        • It could have just been lousy image quality.

          I remember that it took until the DVD release before I realized that, in Star Wars, we actually see the charred bloody skeletons of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.

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        • Spielberg is generally pretty good about Chekhov’s Gun: if he gives you something as obvious as the somewhat odd way the Nazi bad guy grabs the medallion, he’s going to use it.

          We have theater people here; is there a formal name for that kind of thing from the opposite direction? Eg, if there’s a gun on the fireplace mantel at a critical point, taking pains to put it there earlier?

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          • is there a formal name for that kind of thing from the opposite direction? Eg, if there’s a gun on the fireplace mantel at a critical point, taking pains to put it there earlier?

            I’ve read this multiple times, and I am still not sure what you are asking….

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            • The Chekhov’s Gun principle says that if you make a point of there being a gun on the fireplace mantle in Act 1, then you darned well better make sure the gun gets used in Act 2. I’m asking about the opposite. Is there a name for the principle — or even a principle — that says if a gun gets used in Act 2, you’ve taken pains to establish that gun in Act 1.

              Eg, when I dabble in fiction, and the sorcerer needs a particular artifact in Act 2, I take pains to place the artifact in a reasonable place in Act 1. No Agatha Christie bits, with a long-lost cousin that gets introduced in the next-to-last chapter being behind the whole thing.

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              • Ah, I gotcha. AFAIK it’s still a “Chekhov’s Gun” (though as you’ve noted the more generic term is to “establish”).

                Last season of iZombie, a character stashed a pistol in his dresser drawer. On top of the dresser? A paperback Chekhov. Ha!

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                • There was a lot of talk about “Breaking Bad” and Chekhov’s Gun, largely whether or not Gilligan was honoring the idea or not. The internet got pretty crazy about if/when/how the ricin would be used.

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                  • I mentioned that I watched the original Back to the Future not too long ago and thought the script was really tight. What I meant was that almost everything any character says or does early on in the film, is called back to or used later in the film. I don’t know if all of those things are “C’s Gs”, but the basic principle seems the same (a related principle might be the red herring, the item or plot point that seems important but actually serves to misdirect the audience’s attention from the really important one.)

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                • Back in the early days of the web comic Girl Genius, one of the characters set a pistol down on the mantle. Months later (in readers’ time), the action returned to that room and a different character picked up the pistol and used it. This in a comic where it would be perfectly normal for any number of the characters to assemble an exotic weapon out of the odd parts laying about…

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              • Michael Cain:
                I’m asking about the opposite.Is there a name for the principle — or even a principle — that says if a gun gets used in Act 2, you’ve taken pains to establish that gun in Act 1.

                I think it’s usually described by it omission, e.g. Deus ex machina or Applied Phlebotinum. Setting up the plot device (even if just MacGuffin) in a previous act is ‘foreshadowing’ and ‘good plotting’ to me.

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          • Mostly it shows up when you retcon the entire universe, or something like that.
            Niven had a whole script destroying (and I mean in flames) everything he had ever written about the Puppeteers.

            You take what you’ve already put to paper, and then reimagine the entire thing.

            It’s a great writing exercise.

            If you’re doing it straight? You generally just call it “backstory.” Or, if it’s the show runners doing it, you call it “set design” (Ala Deep Space Nine, who switched into “war uniforms” before the actual war. And yes, it was an intentional setup).

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        • Even had they known about the reverse inscription (subtract one kadam), I still struggle to see how their replica would have ever worked properly. The sunbeam is refracting through a jewel set in the center of the medallion – the burn from Toht’s hand might show them how one side of the stone was cut, but not the other, and I would think the jewel’s facet configuration would largely drive the directionality of the refracted sunbeam?

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      • …wait, it actually *is* Belloq? I always thought it was “Belloche”, and they had Indy pronounce it “Bellock” to show how much of a goof he was; like, he’s such a dork that he can’t even pronounce French names! Part of the way that Indy was supposed to parody Chamberlain, playing up the idea of how ridiculous it was that a character could be both a two-fisted action hero and a college professor in an utterly intellectual field like archaeology.

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  2. My favorite thing about Hellraiser happened a few years after it came out, when I was sitting around with some stoner friends of mine. Anyway, at one point the particularly weird member of the group blurts out, “You know, Pinhead was a wimp.”

    To which we all paused and looked at him, waiting for an explanation. Which soon followed.

    “After all, if you hit him with a two-by-four, he’d just be Head.”

    Tee hee.

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  3. The best line of Hellraiser II was when the Doctor gets hisself transformed into a cenobyte (spoiler!) and his first line after the procedure was “To think I hesitated.”

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    • We’re meant to pity the Cenobites, presumably, but they seem without regret. Perhaps we’re meant to pity their victims, but they to asked for this. It is only those caught in the middle who should get our sympathies (and they do).

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      • I think the Cenobites took on a life of there own, so to speak, since they looked cool and were mysterious. The story, at least in the first one, was about the people. The humans made the story, when the C’s became more prominent they were just another generic bad guy franchise like jason or freddie.

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  4. The first and (to a lesser degree) second Hellraiser movies are awesome. All the best horror movies find a way to work subversive and even adult themes into the cruder thrills of the genre. Also I would submit that Clare Higgins is the best evil step mother in the history of film.

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