Hellraiser was made for under $1 million, but wound up becoming one of the most significant horror movies of all time. And yet, the more you learn about this film’s production, the more of a miracle it seems. Here are all the strangest facts you need to know about the making of Hellraiser.
Clive Barker tried to take a book out of the library about how to direct a movie
Barker has written screenplays and books before this, but he wrote the screenplay for Hellraiser, based on his story “The Hellbound Heart,” with an eye to directing. He wanted to become a director to protect his stories from “truly appalling adaptations,” like the 1985 movie based on his story “Rawhead Rex.”
Barker pitched the movie to Roger Corman’s New World Pictures with the script, half a dozen drawings and a couple of loglines, and they said yes pretty much immediately. Barker planned it as a “show reel,” with just a few people in a house, to prove he could make a movie, so he could film a couple other stories that required bigger budgets to realize, according to a 1987 Fangoria article.
But then Barker hit a snag, as he told Bravo for their “100 Scariest Movie Moments” feature in 2004: “I went to my local library to find a book on film directing and they had two, but they were both checked out. And I thought, ‘Oh, I’m so fucked, I don’t even have a book!'”
Barker wanted monsters that could talk about their condition
As Barker told Crimson Celluloid in 1988:
Generally [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][in monster movies] the monsters don’t talk about their condition – about being a monster. What I wanted Frank to be able to do was have dialogue scenes, even romantic scenes that play between him and Julia. I wanted Frank to be able to stand around and talk about his ambitions and desires because I think what the monsters in movies have to say for themselves is every bit as interesting as what the human beings have to say. That’s why in stalk and slash films I feel that half the story is missing. These creatures simply become, in a very boring way, abstractions of evil. Evil is never abstract. It is always concrete, always particular and always vested in individuals. To deny the creatures as individuals the right to speak, to actually state their case, is perverse – because I want to hear the Devil speak. I think that’s a British attitude. I like the idea that a point of view can be made by the dark side.
Doug Bradley tried to get out of playing Pinhead, but drew the short straw
Doug Bradley (who had already played a version of Pinhead called the Dutchman in a 1973 student play of Barker’s) was one of two actors who was up for the role, then called the Head Cenobite. Oliver Parker was also in the running for Pinhead, but the other role that was open was that of the mover who leers at Kirsty.
Both men wanted to play the mover instead of Pinhead, because both roles involved relatively little screen time, and the Head Cenobite would need a lot more makeup. But Bradley “drew the short straw,” as Barker puts it — perhaps literally.
As Bradley says in a DVD featurette:
Since I’d be appearing onscreen for the first time, it would be a good idea if people could see me and…be able to recognize me. These are solidly good, actorly decisions to make…If I would have been offered one of the leads, I would have taken it without a moment’s hesitation. And I would have been dead wrong.
Jennifer Tilly auditioned for the role of Kirsty
She was one of a bunch of actors who tried out for the role in New York, Chicago and L.A., as Barker searched for the perfect lead. Barker and Ashley Laurence found each other through sheer luck. Laurence was a young drama student, enrolled in a teen acting workshop because she had a crush on another workshopper. One of her fellow students was also an intern at New World and she was the one who recommended that Barker audition Laurence.
The studio wanted a “name” actor in the role, but Barker fought for Laurence, and finally won. But she was in for a rude awakening, as she said in an Egyptian Theatre appearance in 2000: “I met Clive, and he said, “OK, your uncle`s wearing your father`s skin, and he wants to kill you and have sex with you, probably in that order.” And that was my initiation.”
The most famous line in the film is an ad-lib
Andrew Robinson (who later played Garak on Deep Space Nine) plays Larry, and he’s probably the most famous actor in the movie. He also contributed a lot of ad-libs to the dialogue. For example, Robinson contributed the line, “Enough of this cat and mouse shit.”
Barker also mentions in the commentary that it was Robinson’s idea to replace the script’s generic “fuck off” as his last line with the now oft-quoted phrase (and, incidentally, the shortest verse in the King James Bible) “Jesus wept!”
So is one of the movie’s most famous shots
Oliver Smith, who played the skinless version of Frank, was a chainsmoker who would sit around smoking cigarettes in his skin-suit while waiting for shots to get set up. The image of a skinned man smoking a cigarette tickled Barker’s fancy and inspired him to include an actual shot of skinless Frank smoking a cigarette in the movie.
As Barker said in his Egyptian Theatre talk, “There`s a sense of camp and kitschiness in the sheer excess of Frank, sitting in the suit and with the cigarette, looking like Bette Davis. That`s great. And those were always intended to be funny, because he’s a skinned man, for God`s sake.”
They’d chosen Smith because he was the thinnest man they could find, so he would still look skeletal even with layers of makeup (which took six hours to apply) on him.
The movie’s costumes were inspired by “S&M clubs”
Costume designer Jane Wildgoose was given very vague instructions for the Cenobites, including phrases like “repulsive glamour.” The Cenobites should be “magnificent super-butchers.” According to the DVD liner notes, Barker said the Cenobites’ look was inspired by “punk, Catholicism, and by the visits I would take to S&M clubs in New York and Amsterdam.”
All the actors who played Cenobites had to endure hours of makeup each day and some couldn’t speak, see or hear properly with their outfits on. Sam Bamford (who played the massive Butterball Cenobite but was actually a ‘tiny man’) had to be led around by the hand and couldn’t breathe properly during the full minute that it took for 2 or 3 makeup assistants to yank his enormous form-fitting mask down over his head.
Nicholas Vince (the chattering Cenobite) couldn’t see very well either and this led to him taking the skin off Ashley Laurence’s palate during a scene in which he sticks his fingers down her throat. According to Vince (on the DVD featurette), his makeup did, however, take less time than the others to apply and, being a garrulous man, he would bound onto the set and wish everyone a loud good morning, a tendency that didn’t win him fans in those early dawn hours during which someone even played classical music to keep things calm.
The actors playing Cenobites had to show up on their shoot days at 4:30 in the morning so they could get into makeup. The makeup people had to get there even earlier to prep.
The movie had a “maggot wrangler” and a “roach wrangler”
Getting her palate scraped wasn’t the only discomfort Laurence experienced. She wore the same t shirt throughout the shoot for continuity purposes. She was made up to look filthy and sweaty at all times but she didn’t mind.
She talks about her look during the Egyptian Theatre talk:
I don`t want to look like I`m in a douche commercial, saying, ‘Oh look there`s a monster, scampering away.'” Clive was like, “I want you to look really crummy,” and I was like, “Yes!” Because it was more believable that when you fight off demons from hell you wouldn`t look your best.
While filming the maggot scene, Barker tossed maggots down her cleavage and, since she had been sprayed to look sweaty, they stuck inside her bra and even slipped down her jeans. There was an actual maggot wrangler on set. Laurence elaborated during their event at the Egyptian Theatre:
[They were] brought out on the day that there were six or seven investors there to see where the money was going, and there was this sheepish little man who was the maggot wrangler, and he walked up to me and said, “I need to talk to you about something,” and Clive said, “Watch me,” and put his hand into this big box of maggots which really make the sound like in the movie, like sandpaper, and you have to put sawdust in with them because they stick. Clive`s big sell to me was that they wouldn`t hurt me because I was alive!
Barker added to this:
Another thing. This was shot in England. We had a maggot wrangler and we also had a roach wrangler. And the cockroaches in England are really small and uninteresting. He said “These are American cockroaches. You have much much more interesting cockroaches!” The deal is that the British law would not allow us to bring in cockroaches of both sexes, in case they mated and then we had an infestation of the Houses of Parliament. So the wrangler, this is the honest truth, had to sex the roaches. They were all male. They were sort of gay roaches. It was fine, they could go out to all the leather bars together, but they couldn`t multiply. And we had a fridge. They move very fast, so the only way to slow them down was to chill them. We chilled the maggots and the roaches. We’d open it up and it was all reassuring. It was fun.
Laurence and Barker both cringe nowadays watching the scene in which Frank peels off a rat’s skin. Both own pet rats. The BBFC demanded to see the mechanical twitching rats so they could confirm that no animals were harmed during the making of the film.
Ashley Laurence wasn’t on set with the Cenobites most of the time
Ashley Laurence shot most of the scenes in which Kirsty fights or flees from the Cenobites without actually playing opposite them. She told Cinefantastique, “I was never really on set with any of the Cenobites because it was such a low budget…If you notice in the film, we’re never on the same side of the camera. We’re always opposite one another. So, most of my work (with the Cenobites) was done to a piece of masking tape.”
With such a small budget, they were always under enormous pressure to finish a shot in one or two takes. Some money was saved by using a real house (187 Dollis Hill Lane, Dollis Hill, London) as one of the primary locations, possibly one with a history that matched the content of the film. Laurence mentions on the commentary that she heard that it was up for sale because someone had committed suicide in the garage via carbon dioxide poisoning.
They ran out of money and had to do some VFX at the last minute
The final pterodactyl-esque demon that flies away with the Lament Configuration box was made by FX man Bob Keen for about 700 pounds as they were out of money at that point. Hence its crude appearance.
In the scene where Kirsty runs down the corridor pursued by the Engineer, they had such a tiny set to work with that the corridor was actually 15 feet long, of which the monster took up 7. And behind the creature – ‘a huge gang of not unsizeable SFX guys.’ The Engineer was a guy mounted on a podium with wheels, and they had to film him and Kirsty moving down the corridor several times over to create the illusion of length. Laurence couldn’t run fast since she’d cover the distance in no time and, as a result, Barker instructed her to run very slowly, jumping a little, so her hair would bounce up and down and she’d look like she was sprinting.
According to the DVD commentary, Barker and an unnamed Greek man did a lot of the third act animation (Pinhead’s glowing disappearance, the blue sparks/lightning emitting from the box) by hand over one drunken weekend. There was supposed to be a shot of the house burning but they couldn’t burn the actual house and didn’t have the money for a convincing model so the visual metaphor they went with instead was a burning photograph of Frank.
But then they got extra money for a couple big set pieces… on one condition
“The backers didn’t have much faith in the film until about half way through when they realised they actually had a good film on their hands,” Barker told Melody Maker. This meant more money at the last minute, but also led to some major compromises, including Barker being forced to set the movie in America in order to better tap the more lucrative US market. This meant that he had to dub a lot of the voices (most notably that of Sean Chapman, who played Frank) over with American actors.
Barker got some extra money for the staging of the now-iconic transformation scene in which the resurrected Frank emerges from the attic floorboards. In the original draft of the script, it happened offscreen as he anticipated not having money for such an elaborate scene. Later, after the backers gained some confidence in the project, they sanctioned an extra $25,000 for the transformation. Bob Keen gave them a good deal as it was always something he wanted to do. This came as a relief to Barker because the original version saw Larry taken to the hospital with a bleeding hand and they would have cut to the dinner party. This would have been nowhere near as effective.
The transformation scene was shot in the replica attic in Cricklewood. It involved setting up multiple rigged mechanisms under the floorboards, one to make them move and vibrate, another to pump viscous goo through the holes in the wood. Frank absorbing blood through the floor was shot by pumping the blood up through the wood and filming in reverse. Finally, there was the modified plastic pouch that stood in for Frank’s heart in the famous shot that ducks under the floorboards. Its inflation/deflation mechanism was powered by Bob Keen blowing into it.
The Engineer was also missing from the original draft and was added as a response to New World’s request that the movie be made a little more commercial. They felt that there weren’t enough jump scares, the lack of which Barker didn’t really address as there are still just a couple towards the end. One is a darkly amusing visual gag in which a wooden Jesus pops out of a closet while Kirsty is looking for a place to hide from the Cenobites.
The “levitation” scene was done using a glorified see-saw.
The scene in which Pinhead rises (levitates?) above Kirsty was achieved by having Doug Bradley stand on one end of a ‘teeterboard’ and having first AD Selwyn Roberts (“a massive man”) stand on the other end to counterbalance it and raise Bradley up.
The first torture scene featuring Sean Chapman’s version of Frank (ie. the one with skin) was actually shot before production started in earnest. Barker and some of the crew had been conducting camera tests. He says on the commentary: “We decided to see if we could get away with something we would be able to use in the movie. We hung him upside down, we poured blood all over him and the poor man puked like a dog!” But the scene worked, the pain was authentic and the footage was used in the final cut.
He wasn’t the only one throwing up on set. Clive Barker was also sick for a while, especially when they were shooting the hospital scene in which the Cenobites confront Kirsty. His nausea was not helped by his negative reaction to the Cenobite makeup. “I was very self conscious about the fact that they all looked ludicrous.” That was the first scene in which the Cenobites are seen under bright light, the sequence in which they had to sell the monsters effectively or not at all. “When Doug walked on to the stage, I’d love to be able to say that I went ‘Oh, my god, that’s a revelation.’ I didn’t. I thought ‘This is a screw-up. People are going to laugh!'” (Barker, from the commentary)
Robin Vidgeon (the director of photography) and Barker disagreed over how to shoot that scene. Vidgeon was of the old fashioned ‘less is more’ tradition. You show less. Barker felt that they had spent all this money on the creatures and they needed to be seen. Barker turned out to be right as the bright neon glare employed in the scene gives it a nightmarish, otherworldly quality.
The scene where Frank-wearing-Larry’s-skin (played by Andrew Robinson at this point) is ripped apart by hooks took hours to shoot and Robinson had to remain attached to the hooks the whole time, resting his back against a board.
No, that’s not Alan Moore
One persistent myth about the production was that the mad bearded tramp who pops up periodically is either Barker himself or the famous comics writer Alan Moore. Barker confirms on the commentary that neither theory is true.
And according to Barker on the DVD commentary, the photographs of Frank with a prostitute were shot with Sean Chapman and a real prostitute, posing in a tiny room that various crew members were trying to get a peek into.
This film had a couple of really great alternate titles
New World nixed The Hellbound Heart as the title because they thought it sounded like a romance. They didn’t much like the Hellraiser title either, and Barker said he’d change it only if someone could come up with a better alternative. According to him, “One of the very English, very proper ladies working on the set said it should called ‘what a woman will do for a good fuck.'” His own working title for the movie was Sadomasochists From Beyond The Grave.
The MPAA made them tone it down
Unsurprisingly, the MPAA had a whole host of problems with the film, affecting much of the late-stage editing. Two and a half shots were excised from the first hammer murder, including a closeup of the hammer lodged in the victim’s head. Barker says on the commentary: “At one point, I had the choice to put it back in again and, y’know, it was better and more violent the other way.”
In a subsequent scene in which Julia murders another man, the actor playing the victim felt that it made sense for him to do so naked. The nude murder scene was shot but, ultimately, replaced with a semi-clothed version.
Other shots that were shortened include sustained close-ups of Kirsty sticking her hand into Frank’s belly, exposing his guts, as well as the final shot of Frank being torn into pieces by the Cenobites’ hooks. Originally, the camera held these shots longer but they are included only as quick glimpses in the final cut.
Barker told Samhain in July 1987:
Well, we did have a slight problem with the eroticism. I shot a much hotter flashback sequence than they would allow us to cut in…. Mine was more explicit and less violent. They wanted to substitute one kind of undertow for another. I had a much more explicit sexual encounter between Frank and Julia, but they said no, let’s take out the sodomy and put in the flick knife.
The seduction scene between Julia and Frank was, initially, a lot more explicit. Barker says on the commentary: “We did a version of this scene which had some spanking in it and the MPAA was not very appreciative of that. Lord knows where the spanking footage is. Somebody has it somewhere…The MPAA told me I was allowed two consecutive buttock thrusts from Frank but three is deemed obscene!”
Barker is still embarrassed by some parts of it
The film was shot in order, and Barker believes that the earlier stretches are the weakest as he was still feeling his way around. He singles out the first scene in which Larry and Julia are conversing in the house, talking about it on the DVD commentary:
I never liked this scene. This was pure exposition. I never liked it as I was shooting it. It was one of those scenes where I was thinking – and this was very early on in the shoot – and I remember thinking I’m screwing this up. I really shouldn’t be doing this.
At the Egyptian Theater talk, Barker added:
I think there are some things that I`m extremely proud of let’s put it that way. And the rest of it, you know, I`m ashamed of! I think the performances are really solid in the picture. Watching it tonight, I`m thinking, ‘You know, this is a really well-acted movie.’ And that I`m very proud of. I think Chris Young’s score is superb. I think it`s well-lit. I think that’s important for a $900,000 movie; it doesn`t look like a TV movie. I think in places—in places, only—the script is fine. In other places, it plays along with hackneyed clichés. I could toughen up alot with it now. But you know, you make your mistakes. You can only learn by doing it, I think.