35 years ago this week, we were introduced to the most twisted horror icon
The character will be returning to screens this year in a new reboot...
Movie fans often debate who the greatest horror villains of all time are with Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers often thrown out as suggestions.
But also worth consideration is a peculiar-looking fella, one who always seems to strike a composed figure despite the nails embedded all over his bald head and the blood from his chest seeping through his all-leather get-up.
He’s a man of many names – Lead Cenobite, the Hell Priest - but the one preferred by fans of the character is Pinhead. He is a creation of horror writer Clive Barker, first appearing in his novella The Hellbound Heart. This was before Barker, frustrated with how his writing was being handled by others onscreen, made the transition to director himself, adapting his own book as 1987’s Hellraiser, which just turned 35.
A compellingly twisted tale of the lengths people will go to for carnal pleasure, a fascinating element of horror fans' love of Pinhead is the fact that the character is used very sparingly in the original Hellraiser, with the film mostly focusing on the dysfunctional Cotton clan.
Clip via Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers
The plot revolves around the decent if boring Larry Cotton (Andrew Robinson), who with his second wife Julia (Clare Higgins), moves into an old family home. It turns out Julia had been having a steamy affair with Larry’s dangerous and hedonistic brother Frank (Sean Chapman) who appears to have gone missing.
However, it isn’t long before a ghoulish, skinless version of Frank reemerges in the house’s attic. Having grown bored with everyday sensory experiences, he sought out a mystical puzzle that promised more. However, upon solving it, sinister extra-dimensional beings named Cenobites - led by Pinhead (Doug Bradley) - took Frank and subjected him to the extremes of sadomasochism.
Eventually fleeing from their realm, Frank convinces Julia, who is still obsessed with him, to lure men back to the attic so they can kill them together and restore Frank to the normal-looking human he once was. However, the Cenobites do not take kindly to people escaping their clutches. All the while, Larry’s daughter from his first marriage Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) begins to suspect Julia is up to no good.
Despite limited scenes, Pinhead does serve a key role in the story, with he and his fellow Cenobites serving as a horrifying representation of what happens to people who seek ultimate gratification. Their proper introduction in the third act of the film also heightens the stakes. This is as Kirsty accidentally opens Frank’s puzzle box and forms an uneasy alliance with the Cenobites. They want to drag her to their dimension, but she offers to help them retrieve Frank to take her place instead.
Even with only a handful of big scenes, it’s easy to see why Pinhead became so iconic and would take more of a centre stage in the movie’s many sequels. Part of it is his unforgettable look. Said to be inspired by Catholicism, punk fashion and visits Barker made to S&M clubs in Amsterdam and New York, the design of the character is striking in its juxtapositions, feeling like a mix of the holy and the profane, something both beautiful and frightening.
Clip via kief4diamonds
Alongside this, there is Doug Bradley’s portrayal. As Pinhead, his vocal delivery is always intense and menacing yet elegant while his stance is mostly upright and rigid but graceful. As such, Bradley manages to exude a feeling of otherworldliness and complete control, while subtly hinting at something human deep within. On top of this, Barker’s script makes Pinhead an extremely eloquent character who has no trouble expressing his wants and desires no matter how disturbing, a quality that separates him from some famous horror villains of the era like the quiet Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers.
On this quality, Barker compared Pinhead to Christopher Lee’s portrayal of Dracula and the character of Hannibal Lecter, saying: "Part of the chill of Dracula surely lies in the fact that he is very clearly and articulately aware of what he is doing you feel that this is a penetrating intelligence. I don't find dumb things terribly scary. I find intelligence scary, particularly twisted intelligence. It's one of the reasons why Hannibal Lecter is scary, isn't it? It's because you always feel that he's going to be three jumps ahead of you."
As mentioned above, the success of Hellraiser - it made nearly $15 million on a $1 million budget - led to three sequels released in cinemas, all of which are ambitious and expansive if flawed (Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth is the best of the lot). Then, after its fourth entry Hellraiser: Bloodline, the franchise became a straight-to-DVD affair and Bradley eventually retired from the series and was replaced as Pinhead.
The sequels in which Bradley did appear fleshed out the character quite a lot. Viewers come to learn that the character was once human. A soldier during World War I, his experiences fighting led him to lose faith in humanity, and like Frank from the first film, seek out the puzzle box that summons the Cenobites, before later becoming one. Interestingly enough, as Barker became less involved in the Hellraiser franchise - he didn't direct any of its sequels - the series played around with the characterisation of Pinhead. In some, he is more human. Others make him more evil. Sometimes, he is more of a judge-like figure, doling out punishment to sinners.
Clip via 20th Century Studios
However, given the less positive reception to Hellraiser's sequels, perhaps Pinhead is more effective as an enigma and in small doses, a horrifying garnish to a smaller-scale, more human story like Frank and Julia's affair in the first film.
It will be interesting to see how the upcoming reboot of the franchise from Hulu will thread this needle. Directed by David Bruckner (who helmed the well-received horrors The Night House and The Ritual) and featuring Sense8's Jamie Clayton as Pinhead, it is set for a release later this year. But can it top the original? Only time will tell.