Clive Barker’s feature film directorial debut, Hellraiser is a remarkable cinematic experience for numerous reasons. Released in 1987, Hellraiser forged Barker’s career in the realm of cinema after he enjoyed success in the literary world, pushed the boundaries of the horror genre in ways audiences had never seen before, and also introduced us to Doug Bradley as an exciting new face in horror, firmly establishing his character as an icon whose influence would resonate for decades (and decades) to come.
And, of course, one of the biggest components of Hellraiser’s perversely wonderful success are the special effects brought to life by designer Bob Keen and his insanely ambitious and talented crew. With all that in mind, for this installment of Practical-ly Perfect, I thought it would be fun to celebrate the brilliant special effects of Hellraiser and hear more from Keen about his experiences collaborating with Barker and working on the UK set along with the rest of the cast and crew. Keen also discussed the challenging nature of Hellraiser’s content, the creative process behind the Cenobites, and how the film impacted the rest of his career in special effects.
“I got a call from Hellraiser’s producer, Christopher Figg, and he said, ‘I just heard you've done a great job on Highlander and I have this film that we would like to talk about.’ I went into London and I met with Christopher and Clive Barker. Clive and I just hit it off immediately. I still think he's one of the most imaginative and fast-thinking directors I've ever worked with. He's amazing. He and I would bat ideas backwards and forwards over a table, and it was really, really hard work to keep up with him, because he had so many ideas. At the end of that initial meeting, they said to me, ‘Okay, we'll be in touch.’ I thought to myself right at that moment, ‘Oh well.’ Usually you get a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,’ so that’s the end of that.”
“But about a week later, Clive actually phoned me up and said, ‘I really, really want you to do the film. We don't have any money yet, but would you want to come and talk to us, and work it through in the meantime?’ So we spent the next six to eight weeks working up ideas. He was still writing the script and trying to push it out to find people to finance it. We would kick around what we could do for no money, and that ended up being some of my favorite times and memories around Hellraiser, really.”
“The process started off with Clive sketching out his ideas that we would work through together, and then we would kick other ideas around based on those sketches. Originally, Pinhead wasn't like he is now at all. He was much more like the character Shuna Sassi in Nightbreed, where it was all quills coming out of the top of his head. I was looking at this and going, ‘Clive, we can't do this on this budget.’ I knew that this makeup would go on for six days and I just knew that we couldn't do that on this micro-budget. He said, ‘Okay, well, let's have a think about it.’ That’s when we came up with this drawing of a grid on a lifecast, just to work out where we were going to put in what was originally going to be six-inch nails. Clive looked at the grid and decided he really liked the symmetry of it, so we left it in.”
“We were having real problems with having to contend with the aesthetics of a six-inch nail, though. It was very crude and it made the design look almost comical when the nails got too deep. I suggested that maybe they should be like thin pins, and because of this series of conversations, through trial and error we ended up with that design of Pinhead, which has become so iconic over time.”
“To this day, I still credit the success of Pinhead to Doug Bradley. Only 10% of what Pinhead has become is due to our work, and 90% of Pinhead is what Doug brought to it and what Clive insisted that he was. He became this bishop of pain, and it just elevated him above all the other monsters that were around at that time and put him onto a different plane, to a much more laid-back, standing back, general type of a character—unlike a Freddy or a Jason, or any of those other characters that were running around at the time. That gave him a lot of power. Doug just worked that, and it became this magical thing.”
“Butterball came out of the fact that we were just talking about an idea of this really fat character and how he'd play with his wounds all the time. Chatterer came out of what we were calling at the time ‘the poor bastard,’ because we decided to design a mask where poor Nick (Vince) couldn't see anything at all. Nick had this ability to make his teeth chatter. It was almost weird, it was like it was freezing cold and he could chatter his teeth, so that became part of that character. The female Cenobite came out of a direct drawing from Clive.”
“The look of these Cenobites would go on to be copied and rehashed and remade on so many other films, but what made the work we did on Hellraiser so great was that it really was a group of people working through a group of problems, with a genius like Clive right at the top.”
Makeup test image from Nicholas Burman-Vince:
Beyond the Cenobites, Keen and his crew were also given the Herculean task of trying to recreate Barker’s audaciously bold and visceral gore effects without many resources to work with, and he discussed how previous films helped prepare him for Hellraiser.
“We then had to create all the other effects, which I thought were the really fun things to do in the film. The Cenobites were really hard work, but still great fun, too. The effects, though, became something where I could draw on all my experiences from the other films I'd done effects-wise. Designing the [puzzle] box and the mechanics of the box, I worked with Simon Sayce, who was working for me on that. We had about four people who would then work out the problems of the box. We came up with the little beating heart thing that's under the floor almost on the day we ended up shooting it. It was made out of a condom, a piece of tubing, some glue, and some bits and pieces to pull the whole thing together and make it look like a real human organ.”
“Then there was The Engineer, which was the big creature, and we built that, but I still say that they overshot it. I think you see too much of The Engineer. It's really something that should have been seen in very, very, very small glimpses. Then there was this skeletal puppet, there were all the physical blood and guts effects, the cutting and the hammering and the effects, too. So many great effects were created on Hellraiser, and it was all great fun.”
“I remember that when we officially went into production on Hellraiser, it was all very sudden. One day, we’re talking and then suddenly, we were making the movie. The one thing I can say about Hellraiser is that we were putting our fingers into places where no one had really gone before in horror. The whole pain and pleasure thing—we knew we were going to push some buttons, but we knew they were risks that needed to be taken.”
“The shoot for Hellraiser was incredibly quick and incredibly intense. We had to create the Cenobites at an extremely fast pace and my entire team was unbelievable. They were really put through the paces on that shoot. We got all the way through to the end, when the executive producers saw the footage and went, ‘We really like this. We really think it's great. We want to put more money in and we want to invest to make it even better.’ So we did the Frank bursting at the end scene and a couple of other pieces were redone, too, about seven or eight weeks after principal photography had finished.”
“It was great that we had the opportunity to go back and correct a couple of things which we didn't think had worked in the film the first time, particularly in relation to the first time you see Frank after his rebirth. It became very clear that we had to reshoot that stuff, because we'd gone in one direction, and now with this human kind of birth, we definitely had to go in another direction.”
Once Hellraiser was completed, it was time for Barker to present his film to the censors, who would (unsurprisingly) take issue with some of the film’s undertones.
“I remember we had a lot of problems with the British censors on Hellraiser. Usually, they would come back and tell you specific things that they want cut out, but all they would say in regards to Hellraiser was, ‘The film is too intense.’ I remember at the time going to Clive and saying, ‘What are we supposed to do with that?’ They had a lot of problems with the torturous aspect of what was going on. They didn't like the fact that there was a sexual overtone, either, so it became very much the problem area where the pain and the pleasure were being mixed together, and they didn't think that was a good thing to promote.”
“But the whole process of making Hellraiser was this tumbling, creative tour de force. You either strive to keep up with Clive or you fall behind. You are pushed every second of the day, and with me being so early on in my career at that time, to find myself pushed by my director so hard, it really did me a great deal of good. It changed my entire view. Having gone from these huge, great, epic movies—where we'd be 11, eight months to a year on the movies and we had a lot more time and freedom—to being put into this low-budget, extremely fast-moving, extremely creative environment, it really changed the way I thought about how to do things and what was achievable and how to come up with things. It was really that film that focused me in.”
“I decided at the time—which financially was probably a terrible idea—that it was a really good idea to stay with the lower-budget films and be a bigger cog than to go with the big-budget films and be a very small cog in a huge machine. I don't regret that, looking back, because I had the best of times doing that. You also have to be more inventive. You have to think on your feet, you have to create quicker and cheaper. You can't just throw money at it and time at it, you have to work the problems out in this way. That served me well, and I really enjoy that aspect.”
“I'm very proud of what the team and I did, too, how we pulled off so much with so little. We were all very young, we were all very enthusiastic, and we all wanted this to be the film that would break us out and get us noticed. I remember that I was shooting Waxwork out in Los Angeles when Hellraiser came out, and every single bus stop had Pinhead on it as a poster. It was mind-blowing, because to all of us, Hellraiser was this little film that we thought would be a stepping-stone up. No one had an idea that this film was going to take off the way it did, and it was incredible to be a part of that.”
First image from Nicholas Burman-Vince: