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Kaite Welsh

‘What a woman will do for a good f*ck’ – Julia Cotton’s sexual agency in Hellraiser

All hail the lusty, bitchy antiheroine of Clive Barker’s visceral 1987 body horror.

Trapped in a bland marriage to a bland man, a woman is consumed by erotic memories to the point that she’ll do anything to make them a reality again – even killing in order to fully resurrect the man she loves and resume their physical relationship. It’s not everyone’s version of sexual liberation but it works for Julia Cotton, the lusty, bitchy antiheroine of the first two films in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser franchise. Sure, there’s some business involving a puzzle box that summons demons and a man whose face looks like a pincushion, but if you think that the plot of the film is about otherworldly horror then you’re focusing on the wrong scenes.

Behind the jump-scares and special effects, it’s an unapologetic exploration of how far people will go to sate their desires. Played with haughty glamour by Clare Higgins, Barker – upon whose novella, ‘The Hellbound Heart’, the film is based – describes Julia as “a very complicated character: lost, lonely, pissed-off with her husband. She’s much more interesting than your average horror movie heroine.”

Hellraiser subverted common horror movie tropes at the height of the 1980s slasher craze. Instead of the usual axe-wielding maniac preying on nubile young girls in their underwear, we have a thirtysomething woman in shoulder pads luring slimy yuppies to her family home with the promise of afternoon delight and then smashing their heads in with a hammer so her skinless lover can feed off them. To some extent she is a Margaret Thatcher stand-in, all shoulder pads and hairspray and performative femininity, draining the lifeblood of the very workforce she appeals to.

Part of the fascination of Hellraiser lies in its attempts to be both a boundary-pushing gross-out horror and a psychosexual thriller, where a woman becomes a serial killer in pursuit of sexual fulfilment before being murdered by her lover, only to rip his heart out when she follows him into the bowels of Hell. In many ways, it’s Looking For Mr Goodbar with added demonic activity. The film has been analysed almost to death by queer theorists, and it’s true that it was heavily influenced by the gay S&M scene in New York at the time, but to do so exclusively erases the ways in which it challenges heterosexuality and the nuclear family.

Although in post-production many of the English actors’ dialogued was dubbed over by Americans, the film retains a peculiarly British seediness reminiscent of Confessions of a Window Cleaner. Aside from Frank the men are largely physically unimpressive – particularly compared to the women to a point that looks almost comedic – and when Julia brings her conquests back to the house, the atmosphere is so awkward that the viewer is wincing even before she brings out her hammer. Although it would be easy to read her as sexually voracious, not only does she not sleep with the men she brings back to the house but she’s actively reluctant to do so. The contrast between the first victim’s bullish forcefulness and her enthusiastic response to Frank’s domination is marked, underscoring the level of consent in the latter scene despite its own undertones of sexual violence which she does not object to.

The film is dominated by the female gaze, both Julia’s dissatisfied one and her stepdaughter Kirsty’s horror as she watches the hell unfold. It’s Frank’s body that becomes the focus of the film, both as a sexual object and a monster. He lounges on a chair, legs spread, in flashback and then later it’s his naked body we see full frontal, not Julia’s whose back is towards the camera. In the flashbacks, Julia is softer – her hair is longer, her make up is less pronounced and even her voice seems gentler. Ironically, her stronger nature is unleashed by her submission to Frank both sexually and emotionally.

After her second kill she appears so glamorously androgynous that she’s positively Bowie-esque, stepping further and further away not only from traditional femininity but heteronormativity. She rejects all the traditional trappings of womanhood – she is disinterested in her husband at best, unfaithful at worst and while Kirsty actively resents Julia, Julia seems only peripherally aware of her stepdaughter’s existence. It’s notable that Julia’s behaviour throughout the film – she frequently complains of feeling sick and tired, and vomits at least once – is also consistent with pregnancy. The attic room where Frank hides, dark, dank and bloody, is a symbolic womb where Julia is growing something monstrous, a parasite she has to feed.

At the start of the film Julia is set up as a stereotypical gothic heroine, moving into her husband’s inherited family home only to discover the bloody family secret that lurks beneath the floorboards. Rather than fight it and defend her family, she teams up with it. For most of the film, she’s the also only fully human character who is aware that anything supernatural is going on. Until the very end Julia isn’t a victim, rather she’s in control – a shaky control that’s overly influenced by a lover she really should have left to rot, but control nonetheless. In a film where pain is sensuously lingered on, her death is swift, reasonably ungraphic – and, thanks to sequel, temporary.

Barker’s plan had been to introduce Julia as the real villain of the franchise, but viewers responded more strongly to Pinhead – and in any case, Higgins declined to reprise the role going on to win three Oliviers, score a Tony nomination and train as a Jungian psychotherapist. She’s also a witch. Sometimes real life really is stranger than fiction.

Published 9 Jun 2018

Tags: Claire Higgins Clive Barker

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