This ICHF was written by Irene Vallone, who you can find at https://irenemvallone.tumblr.com/. I may have made a few touch ups and notes here and there, but the bulk of this entry is their work!
Image borrowed from http://headhuntershorrorhouse.wikia.com/wiki/Skinless_Frank
A while back, I asked this site’s esteemed author if he ever planned on writing an ICHF entry on Pinhead, the face of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser film franchise. His response was—to my shock and horror—no, because he simply didn’t like the Hellraiser movies very much (editor’s note: I don’t personally enjoy them enough to write a proper ICHF, but I readily acknowledge they’re more than worthy of being considered iconic). I don’t begrudge him his opinion; in fact, with the exception of the first film, I pretty much agree. However, I still think that the exclusion of Hellraiser leaves (as Clive Barker himself might describe it) a gaping hole in the author’s thoughtmeat. So without further ado, let’s get to plugging.
Sorry about that. I’ve honestly even grossed myself out.
You might be saying to yourself at this point, “Wait a second, this isn’t an article about Pinhead!” That’s true. After suggesting the Pinhead entry to the site’s author, I eventually realized that, while Hellraiser deserves an ICHF entry, it shouldn’t be about Pinhead.
When people see Hellraiser for the first time, they’re often surprised by how little Pinhead actually appears in the film—probably less than 10 percent of the movie’s total runtime. Heck, he isn’t even named in the credits; the actor who portrays him, Doug Bradley, is credited only as “Lead Cenobite”! And yet, his nail-studded face has become so iconic, so frequently referenced and parodied by everything from The Simpsons to Motörhead music videos, that he’s become something of a minor cultural icon, and people misremember or assume that his role in the film is much bigger. He’s iconic, sure, but he’s not the main monster of the movie. That honor goes to Frank Cotton.
If you’ve never seen Hellraiser, you might be asking yourself “Who? I thought Pinhead was the monster.” Well… yes and no. Pinhead is a monster in that he’s a frightening and inhuman creature, but Frank Cotton is a monster in a much more concrete, almost relatable sense.
Well, that and he’s also a frightening and inhuman creature—at least for most of his screen time.
When we first see Frank, however, he’s just a man—a man who claims to have experienced every pleasure the world has to offer. His hedonistic lifestyle has burnt him out on sensation, leaving him unable to experience any pleasure at all; not even gruesome sex with his brother’s wife, Julia, is taboo enough for him to enjoy anymore. So he does what any man in that situation would do—he goes to Morocco and obtains a mystical puzzle box, which, when solved, opens a portal to another dimension and releases a squad of scarred-up leather daddies called the Cenobites, who instantly rip Frank to shreds with a bevy of hook-tipped chains.
Frank, unfortunately, doesn’t stay dead. When his brother and Julia move into the house he was squatting in when he died, a mishap involving a stray nail gives Frank the taste of blood, and he emerges in the attic as a flayed and twisted ghoul. When Julia discovers him, he convinces her to feed him more blood, letting him slowly grow back to his normal handsome self—though he never quite figures out how to make his skin grow back. The blood in question comes from hapless men whom Julia picks up in bars, luring them to her home so that Frank can mutilate them and drink their fluids.
Julia is something of a Renfield to Frank’s Dracula, enthralled to his terrifying will. However, Julia is an entirely willing servant. No magic or mysticism compels her to kill on Frank’s behalf. He simply has a dangerous charisma, a natural magnetism that pulls her out of her humdrum life. Like Frank himself, she gradually becomes emotionally dulled by the sensory heights of sex and murder. But this article isn’t about her—it’s about Frank, and it’s about the Cenobites!
When Frank’s niece Kirsty learns of his existence, his immediate response is to sexually menace her (remember what I said about him being a monster?). As she escapes him, she steals the puzzle box that caused all this trouble in the first place. Recovering from her ordeal in the hospital, she solves the box, and the Cenobites appear before her, proclaiming themselves “explorers in the furthest reaches of experience”. To these creatures, pain and pleasure are one and the same. They’ve been immersed in such heights of both for so long that they can no longer tell the difference. Therefore, in a sense, they gave Frank exactly what he asked for.
The Cenobites also self-describe as “demons to some, angels to others” (a statement that is unfortunately retconned by the many, many substandard sequels). Like Frank himself, they are figures of complete moral ambivalence, interested only in the physical. Though they express an interest in reclaiming Frank for themselves, it’s out of no apparent desire to punish or reward—just to keep their games of the flesh going for a while longer. They only want him for his body, as it were.
I don’t imagine that these themes are ones that Clive Barker just decided on out of nowhere. Barker claims to have self-identified as gay since the late 1970s, and came out publicly in the 1990s. The manner in which the film presents pleasure and pain—inextricably connected, dulling to the senses, and unconnected to morality—are not dissimilar to homophobic stereotypes of gay men as hedonistic creatures of lust and disease. Barker wrote the film during the mid-1980s, during the height of the AIDS crisis; though he lived in England at the time, and the English gay community was less affected than the American gay community by HIV/AIDS, the subject was likely on his mind nonetheless. One wonders how much the film was influenced by homophobic rhetoric, twisted into a literal truth where gender-defying creatures of madness subject their victims to deadly pleasures. (Note that I’m not making any accusations of Clive Barker, nor do I wish to unduly speculate about his personal life; this is just how I read the film, and I think it’s at least a possibility from a historical perspective.)
I won’t spoil what happens from after the Cenobites appear; if you want to see the movie’s whackadoodle climax and potentially predictable yet entertainingly wild twist ending, you’ll have to watch it yourself. Suffice it to say, however, that Frank Cotton manages to be the most ugly and terrifying presence in a film that features a features a giant floating mole-rat with fangs.
Editor’s Note: One of the reasons I held this Jam was to cover horror characters that I personally am not capable of doing justice, whether out of lack of knowledge or my own personal aesthetic biases. Clive Barker’s fiction is an incredibly influential and important part of the genre, and while I may not personally enjoy it, I am delighted to finally have one of his characters in the ICHF gallery.