Chasing Transgressions: Censoring Excess in Exploitative Horror

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Ever since the introduction of the Hays Code in 1927, films in the horror genre have fought to remain true to the voice of the genre. The consistency in which film creators have chipped away at those codes since their inception has brought us to where we are today; while movies like Hellraiser (1987) have still had to deal with censorship before they premiered, what is deemed excessive or exploitative is brought to new heights with each film that dares to push the limits.

Fully banned in Kansas…

When Frankenstein (1931) was first released, the local Kansas board banned it for the entire state; thousands of unhappy moviegoers wanted access, so eventually, the board relented. The Kansas board bastardized the movie with so many cuts that it, “would have stripped it of all its horrific elements,” which brought the intervention of the MPDDA and fewer cuts (Petley 132). The film standards that were enforced in the 1930s didn’t take into account the production of the horror genre; after wondering where the line would be drawn for a genre that consistently dug further into the dark, it was decided that:

As long as monsters refrained from illicit sexual activity, respected the clergy, and maintained silence on controversial political matters, they might walk with impunity where bad girls, gangsters, and radicals feared to tread.

(Cited in Petley 131)

Those standards wouldn’t last for long. The lines within horror are blurred, humans can be the monsters who don’t refrain from illicit sexual activity, demonic representations within films regularly disrespect the clergy, and have had a tendency to be outspoken on controversial political matters [see Night of the Living Dead (1968)]. Censorship for violent or graphic content was incredibly strict from the inception of the Hays Code until the 1960s when the standards for censorship were relaxed (Petley 130).

With the growing popularity of television sets in the home came tight restrictions for television programs. Televisions made entertainment easily accessible to people in the comfort of their own homes—this created stiff competition for filmmakers. While television standards were stricter, it allowed film production codes to be lowered in order to lure viewers back to the theater with the prospect of seeing something more forbidden. When Hellraiser was first released in 1987, audiences may have been a little shocked at the overt sexualization of pain and violence.

The graphic nature of the gruesome torture scenes cut in between scenes of sexual conquest and that starts within the first fifteen minutes. The mise-en-scène we are given with Julia’s flashback to her affair with her soon-to-be husband’s brother Frank sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Frank appears at the door, confident if not rude and slightly mysterious, drenched from the downpour of rain. He imposes himself upon Julia and we see her in her most innocent and unassuming form—cut to her walking into the third floor attic, a dusty, dingy, room in ill repair, to be alone with her thoughts.

Every inclusion of prop, from the knife that he cuts her nightgown strap with, to the wedding dress he lays her down upon to begin their torrid love affair, is essential to the story. Frank will take what he wants from Julia; having never been with a man who so confidently takes what he desires, Julia falls lustfully into their fervent and passionate, if not taboo, lovemaking. Engaging with Frank atop her pure white gown, sullying her presumable innocent reputation, is at the core of what Hellraiser translates to. Pleasure that feels sinful, Pain that feels pleasurable—two things that, with the Lament Configuration, blend together seamlessly.

The scene continues, cutting from the flashback of the affair to present-day Julia in longing remembrance, and then to her husband as he struggles to move a bed into their home. Frank and Julia climax in the flashback, Julia begins to cry, and Larry cuts himself deeply on a nail protruding from a wall. In these five minutes, we have excess in the taboo sexual act of cheating, the emotional show of Julia’s aching desire for Frank, and the adverse reaction Larry has to his own hand gushing blood. The movie continues on in this manner, unapologetic and all the more entertaining for it—we spend the next few minutes watching the floorboard soak up Larry’s blood and subsequently reconstitute most of Frank’s body.

Pinhead from Hellraiser

Torture Porn and Erotica?

Some people might have found those two scenes to be subversive or even repulsive—some, according to movie critics at the time, found it comical. As if the excess pushed it from a horrifying experience, to a campy overdone joke. I think, when appreciated for the time it was created and given a little benefit of the doubt, it sows the seeds of a completely gratifying horror experience. Any attempt to relate to Julia, one might actually feel sorry for her—she feels as if she’s fallen in love with Frank and that he loves her back. The truth that she doesn’t really take into consideration is that desire and love don’t always coexist; Frank doesn’t actually care about Julia past using her for his own personal gain. We find out later, Frank’s coercive nature leads her to bring back men for him to feed off of and escape hell. Her own selfish desires lead her to assume that once he’s back in his skin (quite literally), they’ll rekindle their love-affair.

Violence and sex have had a tendency to be viewed differently in different countries. Where America has historically fallen back on christian outrage when it comes to depictions of sex (especially premarital sex) on the big screen, violence has been considered more acceptable. Alternatively, as Dumas has noted, countries like Sweden have had the opposite policy (29). People experience an incredible amount of shame and anxiety surrounding their own sexual desires that may or may not be considered taboo within an otherwise moral society—this of course causes an internal conflict for the audience (Dumas 29). What’s more is when Hellraiser’s Pinhead suggests that, “pleasure and pain (are) indistinguishable,” within his realm, it cements the concept of sexualizing brutality.

A certain morbid curiosity has escalated the gory nature of horror films with the release of each new feature. Post 9/11 audiences seemed to be even more desensitized than before—torture porn like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) hit the theaters—horror fans flocked to experience the repulsion and anxiety that comes with watching the suffering of others (Pinedo 345). A world where fear and uncertainty were becoming more commonplace, there became a vaccuum for horror. These gratuitous, taboo, excessive movies gave viewers a space in which we were free to be afraid.

Excess turns exploitative when the horror no longer fits around an underlying story, but instead, a story is made to fit around underlying ideas of violence and repulsion. Like pornography that attempts to have a plot—just look at any motion-picture porn parody—exploitative horror like The Human Centipede (2009), I Spit on Your Grave (2010), A Serbian Film (2010), and Tusk (2014) is simply an excuse to showcase gratuitous violence. These films are still liable to be heavily cut (Petley 146-147) and for good reason.

What is interesting is that such exploitative films are defended regularly, but are they films that need to be defended? A Serbian Film’s subject matter is indefensible, yet there are people who try to reason away the infant rape scene by bringing up that it wasn’t a real infant. Regardless of whether it’s a real infant or not, it’s meant to convey the scene in the most realistic way possible so as to instigate a severe repulsion response. It’s even suggested that “the masochistic and sadistic aspects of the film-viewing experience [implies] that viewers get some form of sexual gratification from these images,” (Pinedo 347) which in the case of A Serbian Film is beyond horrifying.

Horror and sex have a long, intertwined history, the eroticization of depictions of violence is nothing new. However, a horror film’s ability to stimulate viewers sexually, “not only draws their attention, but also primes them to react more strongly to other feelings, such as suspense and fear,” (Pinedo 347). In the end, what is considered exploitative or excessive is dependent upon the audience—there will always be those who object, just like there will always be those who call for more violence, gore, repulsion, and explicit sexual content.

Strong reactions and emotions have historically created experiences fewer people can forget. As an example, who can forget the release of Hostel in 2005, where viewers were not only fleeing the theater, they were reportedly throwing up in their seats. If the saying, “there’s no such thing as bad press,” is true—which it certainly seems to be within the horror genre—then these outrageous claims of such violent repulsion created a more morbidly curious audience.

Works Cited

Dumas, Chris. “Horror and Psychoanalysis: An Introductory Primer.” A Companion to the Horror Film, edited by Harry Benshoff, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017, pp. 21–37.

Petley, Julian. “Horror and the Censors.” A Companion to the Horror Film, edited by Harry Benshoff, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017, pp. 130–147.

Pinedo, Isabel C. “Torture Porn: 21st Century Horror.” A Companion to the Horror Film, edited by Harry Benshoff, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017, pp. 345–61.

The Morbid Genius of Clive Barker

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Featured Horror Books Scary Movies and Series

One would not need to delve too far into the horror genre without the legendary name of Clive Barker popping up. Born October 5th 1952, this English author, director, playwright and visual artist is recognized as one of the most unique and imaginative minds to adopt the macabre. In the mid 80’s Barker rose to prominence, carving himself a spot as a leading horror writer with his Books of Blood series that, when released, featured a quote from none other than Stephen King stating: “I have seen the future of horror, and his name is Clive Barker”. Since then a great amount of his work has been translated to film, some of which (arguably the better) he even took it upon himself to write and direct. Barker wrote the screenplays for Underworld (1985) and Rawhead Rex (1986), both directed by George Pavlou. Displeased by how his material was handled, he moved to directing with the first in the extensive Hellraiser series, born from his novella The Hellbound Heart. To this day Barker branches into every area of the horror genre he can, his surreal and fantastically unsettling style inspiring thousands to look at horror just a little differently.

Ever the visionary, Barker has created legions of characters for his books and comic series, often painting them himself. His visual art had been featured in galleries across the United States, as well as featuring heavily in his own books, making his end products far more vivid forms of personal expression. 

Clive Barker and Doug Bradley dressed as pinhead character from Hellraiser horror movie franchise

Barker horror adaptations and spin-offs in comics include the Marvel/Epic Comics series Hellraiser, Nightbreed, Pinhead, The Harrowers, Book of the Damned, and Jihad; Eclipse Books’ series and graphic novels Tapping The Vein, Dread, Son of Celluloid, Revelations, The Life of Death, Rawhead Rex and The Yattering and Jack, and Dark Horse Comics’ Primal, among others. Barker served as a consultant and wrote issues of the Hellraiser anthology comic book.

Barker’s short story The Forbidden (from Books of Blood) was adapted for the screen in Bernard Rose’s 1992 Candyman, and has been adapted again recently into a reboot of the same name. With this new modernisation of the classic 80s tale, it only stands to reason that a fresh new audience of moviegoers will be introduced to Barker’s madness, viewers who will be wondering what else has been crafted by such a unique maestro of morbidity. 

BOOKS

The Damnation Game (1985) 

Clive Barker's The Damnation Game (1985) book cover featuring a screaming face and a tree

Not long after publishing the first trilogy of Books of Blood in 1985, Barker set about writing his novel The Damnation Game, a Faustian story laden with all the dark eroticism and fantastical gothic style that readers have now come to expect from the man. 

Recently released convict and avid gambler Marty Strauss finds himself in the employ of Joseph Whitehead, one of the richest men in the world. As Whitehead’s bodyguard, Strauss encounters an increasing series of unnatural and horrific events involving Whitehead and a demonic man named Mamoulian, who has some connection to a ‘deal with the devil’ made by Whitehead during WW2. With detailed subject matter ranging from cannibalism and incest to raising the dead and self-mutilation, this early vision of Barker’s was no less potent and uncompromising than the works it led to. 

The Hellbound Heart (1986) 

The Hellbound Heart (1986)  book cover with demon drawing featuring a man in an upside down skull

Keeping his gory, visceral style in the spotlight, Barker published his novella The Hellbound Heart in November 1986 though Dark Harvest’s Night Visions Anthology series.

Hedonistic criminal Frank Cotton, a man so enamored with sensory experience that he will harm anyone to achieve it, finds a puzzle box known as the Lemarchand Configuration, a device which when completed can summon a torturous demonic race known as Cenobytes. With no differentiation between pain and pleasure, these entities introduce whoever summons them to eons of horrific torture, sometimes transforming their victims to Cenobytes themselves. 

In 1987 Barker wrote and directed a film adaptation known as Hellraiser, which later snowballed into the long-running franchise featuring Doug Bradley’s infamous Pinhead that we know and love today. After the success of the first Hellraiser flick, The Hellbound Heart was released as a standalone title by HarperPaperbacks in 1991. 

Cabal (1988) 

Cabal book cover with a woman's eye in frame

Cabal is Barker’s third novel and was published in the US in 1988 as part of a collection featuring it and several shorts from the sixth volume of his Books of Blood series. The story centres around Boone, a troubled young man suffering from a vague mental disorder, and his trusted psychiatrist Decker. Decker informs boon that he was responsible for a series of brutal murders in Calgary, though Boone can remember nothing of actually committing the heinous acts. Seeing himself as a monster, Boone begins searching for the legendary city of Midian, where other monsters had apparently found refuge. 

In 1990 Barker wrote and directed a screen adaptation of the novel, entitled Nightbreed after the legion of downtrodden folk who inhabit Midian. Sadly the flick was a commercial and critical flop, Barker pointing out that this was due to the film company trying to sell Nightbreed as a standard slasher without any real knowledge of the lore behind the book. Cabal thankfully remains a classic, featuring tense storytelling, rich worldbuilding around the mythical city of Midian and one truly disturbing arch villain.

The Great and Secret Show (1989) 

The Great and Secret Show (1989) book cover with a spooky mailbox

The first in a trilogy that came to be known as The Art trilogy by fans, The Great and Secret Show is Clive Barker’s fantasy novel which he describes as about “sex, the movies and Armageddon in Hollywood”. He also stated that it was the hardest to write of all of his books. 

The story concerns Quiddity, a mystical dreamscape pictured as an ethereal sea, which two highly evolved men are locked in a decades-long battle for control of. Randolph Jaffe wants to leach power from the realm of Quiddity while Richard Fletcher would like the place untouched and untainted. Their battle seeps from this realm into the real world where reality itself is affected, as well as the fate of the entire human race. 

Of course, in true Barker style, he has also been quoted to say: “”The sexual stuff has always been very strong in my books and this is no exception. There are scenes of profound weirdness that shouldn’t be talked about over a civilized dinner table.”

Imajica (1991) 

Imajica (1991)  book cover with a universe and planets

Steering further into dark fantasy realms and away from his usual horror affair, Barker next released Imajica in 1991, proclaiming that it was his favourite piece of his writing up to that point. At a massive 824 pages on first printing, the epic describes Earth as the Fifth Dominion and chronicles its reconciliation with the other four Dominions, esoteric parallel realities known to none but a few on Earth. A vast and intricate story covering themes such as god, love, sex, gender and death, much of the content of which apparently came to Barker in dream form. Barker was so inspired by these dreams that he wrote Imajica inside of fourteen months, working twelve to fourteen hours a day. 

The Thief of Always (1992) 

The Thief of Always was something of a curveball for Barker, since it contained plenty of his surreal oddities in style and story, though refrained from his usual foray into dark sexuality to create a fable intended for children just as much as adults. 

The Thief of Always (1992)  book cover with colorful house and demon trees

‘The Holiday House’ is a fictional paradise for children where a bored and disenchanted eleven-year-old named Harvey Swick one day finds himself. The house is indeed a paradise, where it is Halloween every evening, Christmas every night and seemingly has four seasons occurring in the space of a day. After spending time at the Holiday House, Harvey begins to uncover secrets about its elusive creator, Mr Hood, and a plot so hideous that he should want to leave the place forever and not look back. 

This was a title in which Barker included his own art, both on the cover and featuring black and white illustrations of his throughout. 

FILMS

Rawhead Rex (1986) 

Rawhead Rex (1986) horror movie poster with a monster

The script for Rawhead Rex was written by Clive Barker himself, though directing fell to George Pavlou, and the end result was a schlocky flop of a B-movie that, aside from later cult attention, garnered little to no worth to anyone involved. Adapted from another short in the Books of Blood series concerning a pagan creature predating Abrahamic religion who is inadvertently awakened by farmers in the Irish countryside. Aside from some of Barker’s classic subtext around ancient evil, sexuality and religion, the film was saturated in many of the expected tropes of 80s monster movies, pushing it more in line with a slew of other similar flicks. 

A lot of the negative reception reportedly came from the design of Rawhead himself. Barker’s original concept for the monster was apparently that of a nine-food phallus with ground meat for a head. When Rawhead came out looking more ogre or gorilla-like, and not unlike a lot of B-movie monsters at the time, Barker felt dissatisfied to the point that he vowed to be much more involved in his later adaptations. This is considered the main reason he chose to write and direct Hellraiser (1987) next. He has even voiced an interest in remaking the film in his own vision, though his reboot of Hellraiser will quite likely be next in line.

Hellraiser (1987) 

Hellraiser (1987) movie poster with Pinhead demon holding a puzzle box

Hellraiser is not only Barker’s most famous and recognizable work but is a milestone for the horror genre to this day. Based on his 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart, Hellraiser’s story centers around young Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence), caught in a hellish struggle between her mother Julia, her criminally hedonistic uncle Frank and a gang of leather-clad, body-modded, extra-dimensional demons called the Cenobites. Frank is torn apart by chains upon failing to solve an ancient puzzle box known as the Lament Configuration, and after escaping the clutches of Hell begins to make his way back to the mortal world. He does so with the help of Julia, who kills men to feed his building form. 

Most notable in this film is the performance of Doug Bradley as Pinhead, or ‘The Hell Priest’, the leader of the cenobites. The character was so expertly and chillingly portrayed as to spawn a series of over nine other films along with extensive series of comics and novels. Pinhead has even appeared as a playable character on multiplayer horror game Dead By Daylight. 

Far more than a simple horror, Hellraiser explored themes of religion, women’s agency, the pleasure-pain dynamic, ambition, hedonism, and of course sexuality as a conduit in the battle between good and evil. 

Nightbreed (1990) 

Nightbreed (1990) Clive Barker Horror movie Poster featuring a group of monster

Operating somewhere in the midst between fantasy and horror, Nightbreed is an adaptation of Barker’s novel Cabal, wherein the disturbed Boone, here played by Craig Schaffer, is convinced of his murderous nature by the psychedelic therapist Decker, here portrayed by none other than David Cronenberg, and travels to find the mysterious city of Midian where he might find refuge. 

After being shot to death by a police squad sent by Decker, and then mysteriously resurrected, Boone is given refuge in Midian and becomes acquainted by its quirky and visually striking populace of undead rejects. Boone must convince Midian’s people to fight back against his pursuers lest their secret be revealed to the entire world. 

The film was a commercial and critical flop in its initial theatrical run, but has since become a cult success, with a director’s cut released in 2014, several tie-in comic books and two video games.

The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

The Midnight Meat Train (2008) horror movie poster with a man holding a meat hammer behind a glass door

Heralded by many as the best Barker adaptation since Hellraiser, The Midnight Meat Train is an adaptation of the 1984 short story of the same title. With a stellar cast featuring Bradley Cooper, Vinnie Jones, Brooke Shields and Ted Raimi, some top-drawer set pieces and an ending that leaves most viewers floored, this is undoubtedly the best modern Clive Barker experience there is on offer. 

Directed by Japanese filmmaker Ryuhei Kitamura (Alive), the story follows photographer Leon (Cooper) who is determined to capture the grit and seedy nature of New York’s subway system. As a character he is on the questionable end of the moral scale, committing such acts as photographing a sexual assault before making any attempt to stop it. He begins an obsessive habit of following serial killer Mahogany (Jones) also known as ‘The Subway Butcher’. While viewers are led to believe this will be a standard slasher affair, certain narrative curveballs ensure this will be a viewing experience you’ll not soon forget. 

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clive_Barker

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/oct/30/how-we-made-hellraiser-horror-film-pinhead-clive-barker

Two Cenobites Talk Horror and Life

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Down To Hell hosted by Doug Bradley (Pinhead) and Barbie Wilde will be live on Horror Hubs Twitch Thursday January 13th, 2022 5pm PST – 8pm PST chatting live and answering questions from Fans.

Pinhead and the female cenobite from hellraiser 2 hellbound

Down To Hell enters its second year and the live show has already had some horror fan favorites including Robert Englund (Freddy Kruegar). Started in 2021 Doug Bradley and Co Host Steph Sciullo have been answer fan questions, hanging out with horror icons, and talking about everything from horror to how to say french fries in England (turns out it’s “chips”).

clive barkers pinhead character showing demon with pins in his face and head
Doug Bradley as Pinhead

Since his school days Bradley has been close friends with Clive Barker. In the seventies Bradley and Clive Barker founded the progressive theatre group “Dog Company”. While Barker worked on writing with his friend Peter Atkins (script-writer for several Hellraiser films), Bradley started acting. Bradley made it to the Movie Monster Hall Of Fame with his role as the cenobite, Pinhead, who he portrayed in eight of the Hellraiser movies.

Female cenobite from hellraiser 2 with blood on her face

In pursuit of an acting career, Canadian actress Barbie Wilde moved to London, England many years ago. Wilde has performed in cabaret in Bangkok; traveled to Bombay to appear in the Bollywood blockbuster, ‘Janbazz’, which also starred Anil Kapoor of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ fame; robotically mimed with English TV legends Morecombe and Wise; and danced professionally at the top nightclubs of New York City, London and Amsterdam with the dance/mime group, Shock. She has also appeared as the Female Cenobite in the classic cult horror movie ‘Hellbound: Hellraiser II‘ and as a vicious mugger in ‘Death Wish III’.

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