by Evan J Peterson
On Tuesday, we launch the now-monthly SHRIEK: Women of Horror Film & Discussion class. Please join us as we go further into the world of women in the horror genre. Plans for 2016 include more films directed by women and more international films and protagonists of color. For now, let’s get ready for Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, a sexually intricate film of medium length but epic mythological scope, that featuring a female villain two female protagonists, one of whom is disabled.
Stats on Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (1988)
Body count: 33 according to Bodycounters.com. It’s difficult to determine—people don’t really stay dead in this mythos
Nudity: only female
Does it pass the Bechdel-Wallace test: Yes, although most of these conversations are verbally one-sided.
Major protagonists: two young women
Villains/Antagonists: one male, one female, some androgynous
Major actors: Ashley Laurence, Doug Bradley, Clare Higgins, Kenneth Cranham, Imogen Boorman
Director: Tony Randel
Writers: Clive Barker (original story), Peter Atkins (screenplay)
Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, like the first Hellraiser and Clive Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart, is an artful and thoughtful horror film. This isn’t just Stabbing 2: Electric Stab-a-loo. The Hellraiser mythos takes sadomasochism and body modification as its zone of disquiet, exploring the idea that perhaps some of the tormented characters enjoy this (though certainly most do not).
The sequel begins with a recap of the ending of the first film. We get another flashback montage recap toward the end of Act 1, so I’ll refrain from saying much about the first film. This film blows open the scope of the Hellraiser mythos. Within the first five minutes, we see the origin of the lead Cenobite (commonly known as Pinhead), and then later we get to actually see their version of Hell and its bewildering, fleshless god. We see how Cenobites are created and destroyed, although the final showdown that pits Cenobite vs. Cenobite is rather groundless and only there for spectacle.
Whereas part 1 is a family gothic in a confined space of an inherited house, the second film places the gothic horror in a psychiatric hospital (always a good locale for gothic horror), then takes us from there into literal Hell. But this is a new Hell—a labyrinth, not a lake of fire or a pit of ice. While Hell is populated by the demonic (yet formerly human) Cenobites who torture and remake the damned, the god of Hell is nothing like the Satan we usually see. I love the big reveal of just what god it is that the Cenobites serve.
As in the previous Hellraiser stories, the Cenobites are not the main villains, even though they become so beginning with Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth. Prior to that turn of the franchise, they don’t go around torturing people willy-nilly. The Cenobites only come and get you if you invite them. You have to open the Lament Configuration puzzle box, and they assume you know what you’re getting into. Moreover, as we learn in this film, they’re more interested in torturing those who intend the box be opened than those who actually solve the puzzle. They’re not actively evil but rather adherent to a different morality of pain and pleasure.
Like much of Clive Barker’s work, there’s a thinly masked queer subtext: that which the Cenobites consider great pleasure is horrifying to “normal” people. Furthermore, the Cenobites are quite androgynous figures with their shaved heads and black leather gowns. Lastly, these genderless priests of Hell illustrate that every body is penetrable. Their skins are opened, metal and leather woven in and out of the wounds. They’re walking examples of a very male and heterosexual fear: stuff going into your body, the assumption being that this will be painful and nonconsensual.
From this atmosphere of outré gender and sexuality emerges Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence), who is stuck in a psychiatric hospital, convinced her murdered father is stuck in Hell with the Cenobites. The police (all one of them) are trying to get a logical story out of Kirsty, who just recaps what she witnessed in the first film, i.e. the destruction of her father, uncle, and stepmother under supernatural circumstances. Like any tropey young horror protagonist, she swears she’s telling the truth to the authorities, as impossible as it sounds.
Curiously, Kirsty’s boyfriend from the first film was “sent home hours ago,” and is completely absent from this film. That’s okay; he was redundant anyway, adding little if anything to Kirsty’s quest to survive her murderous uncle Frank and stepmother Julia and the torture-monks who they’ve all summoned. In H:H2, Kirsty has a new male companion, Dr. Kyle MacRae, who finds out she’s telling the truth. Kyle, while not as useless as her beau in the first film, nonetheless fades out quickly to let Kirsty and fellow psychiatric patient Tiffany have the spotlight.
Tiffany makes for an intriguing second protagonist. Tiffany doesn’t talk much, as she’s mentally disabled and fits the cinematic stereotypes of autism (obsessively solving puzzles, failing to speak, etc.). To have a disabled protagonist, especially one who is mentally disabled yet survives by her own wits, is rare in the horror genre. The team of Kirsty and Tiffany is pretty badass; no longer is Kirsty a “final girl,” but instead a leader who cooperates with another woman to save them both. As she negotiated her way out of Hell the first time, Kirsty now figures out the greater mysteries of the Cenobites, escapes her uncle and stepmother again, and uses a particularly gruesome disguise to beat new villain Dr. Channard.
While Dr. Kyle believes Kirsty, so does Dr. Channard, the head of the psychiatric hospital. He’s a secret occultist who’s been researching the Cenobites and the puzzle box. He’s is the worst kind of sadist—he doesn’t merely get his rocks off to the suffering of others. He studies pain, but not for anyone’s medical benefit. He stokes agony just to see what will happen. He’s terrifying in his detached curiosity when he, for instance, gives a paranoid-delusional patient the means to mutilate himself, all to resurrect the dead Julia. It’s almost pitiful when Channard is eventually turned into a [SPOILER ALERT] giant, ulcerated dick full of knives. And of course, Channard has Julia’s help to give him exactly what he wants.
Julia effectively manipulates the other male villains who wish to use her for their own whims. Aside from being rotten to the core, she’s a pretty righteous gal, a self-described step up from evil stepmother to wicked queen. In that way, this does become a bit of a fairytale: it’s stepmother vs. stepdaughter in a supernatural brawl to be alpha female, and each defeats several male characters in her quest.
It’s somewhat debatable whether the film passes the Bechdel-Wallace test. Julia and Kirsty don’t exactly have conversations; Julia just waxes villainous, and Kirsty just shouts at her. Tiffany usually doesn’t speak. I believe this passes the test, especially if we widen the understanding of the term “conversation” to include nonverbal women who nonetheless communicate in other ways.
The film isn’t perfect. There’s the introduction of a new kind of MegaCenobite which loses the grotesque elegance of the others and is only really there to push the special effects and have a Cenobite showdown. The lines are frequently too overt in their exposition, forcing the actors to say, “Yep, here’s what’s going on in case you didn’t get it from the visual storytelling.”
Aside from those drawbacks, this an extravagantly creative and monstrous horror film featuring women in the most important roles. Join us this Tuesday for SHRIEK: Hellbound: Hellraiser 2!
You can reserve your space in the class here.
The SHRIEK community film class is designed to offer everybody an affordable, accessible way to learn about film and women’s studies while enjoying kick-ass heroines in some of the best horror films ever made. We hope to inspire more women to get involved in film making, especially in the horror genre, where women are severely underrepresented behind the camera. Scarecrow Video is wheelchair accessible. We suggest bringing an extra chair cushion if needed for comfort.
Evan J Peterson is a journalist, professor, 2015 Clarion West writer, Lambda Literary Award finalist, and author of Skin Job and The Midnight Channel.