the new “hellraiser” on hulu and giggle-ghouly speech

A few times a year I’ll be excited for a new-release movie that’s going straight to streaming, I watch trailers and interviews and I count down the days til release, but then once it comes out I never get around to it. Or not for several days. This doesn’t happen at the movies. Weirdly. I’d hate to say it’s got to do with something so simple as spending money but I do get some sort of thrill whenever I spend money. Plus I only go to movie theaters that serve alcohol, and I’ve never in the decade since college kept a standard Mon—Fri schedule, so there’s the added thrill of drinking three IPAs at 11:30 in the morning in a giant empty theater on some idle Thursday. 

Hulu’s Hellraiser reboot came out last Friday and I was excited to see it for weeks but then waited three days to actually sit and do so. You might have noticed that streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu and Prime tend to hold off on marketing their original content until the couple weeks before release, as opposed to what’s normally a five- or six-month arc from Teaser, to Trailer 1, to Trailer 2, to TV Spot and then—don’t stop—Release. It’s a clever strategy! It’s nice to see an interesting movie trailer and, just as you’re about to say I wanna see that, the title card shows you it’ll be on your TV in a few days. 

I’ve been thinking for years that if ever I got the chance to write a reboot for some intellectual prorperty I’d like it to be either Hellraiser or Nightmare on Elm Street; ‘80s franchises that work as vehicles for slasher icons, Pinhead and Freddy Kreuger respectively. What’s titillating from a writing perspective is they stand alone among other movie monsters as also being charismatic. Dracula’s chrismatic but no more Dracula. (Full disclosuer: I am writing a novel about Dracula.)

Hellraiser (2022) is good but there’s a trap for anybody who handles this material the right way: the big allure in the movie is Pinhead, who’s well-embodied by Jamie Clayton: stoic but grinning; sadistic but not invulnerable; photographed mostly in the shadows so that the zillion-spikes-in-skull thing doesn’t become silly.

An issue with Pinhead is they can’t be in too much of the movie or they lose their mystique.

(Pinhead Gender Note: Understood as male in the early movies, Pinhead—also Hell Priest of the Cenobitical Order, as per the books—is portrayed by a woman in this reboot. Creator Clive Barker uses a masculine pronoun in the books but concedes elsewhere that demons from Hell probably aren’t coding pink or blue. They’re busy. He mentions, too, that Pinhead’s BDSM theodicy is always striving toward a bodily pain so transcendently excruciating that it become sexual pleasure. Kinda makes sense that such an extra-dimensional sex-demon hellpriest would observe a certain fluidity of gender).

But if the movie’s effect is largely contingent on the long-term disappearance of its charismatic and weridly beautiful villain (Clive Barker, filming the original, told his costume designers that he wanted his on-screen demons to achieve “hideous glamour”), then you invariably have a movie with long dull spells between that villain’s appearance. 

In 2022, as a 31-year-old person who’s wanted to be a writer since he was ten, I finally started reading Shakespeare. The language is difficult and I get legitimately tearful and self-loathing when I’m reading something I don’t understand (blaming elementary school teachers for this) so the way I do it is I listen to BBC radio performances and read along. I’ve gone through eight of the major plays this way. After finishing each play I’d read some commentary and learn that they all have at least one famous speech that actors get bent outta shape about performing. The most famous is Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquey but Macbeth’s got one of those too and so does Caesar and Juliet. 

I generally have a hard time looking at Ethan Hawke’s face since learning that he cheated on Uma Thurman but he is a very literary person and tells this great story on The Late Show about how the actor Mark Rylance gets over that fright by standing out on stage, alone, and staring at the audience in total silence until they start laughing in discomfort—and that’s when he starts to deliver the lines. It strikes the audience silent. They feel bad for laughing. And now, penitent, they pay close attention. Maybe listen to the words for the first time. 

Mark Twain used to do this on his lecture circuit. I know a great deal about things like Mark Twain’s lecture circuit in the 1860s and Ernest Hemingway doing magazine advertisements for Ballantine scotch because it’s valuable to know how writers made money without writing. Mark Twain used to go out on stage and stare at his audience. Intensely. For minutes. Without saying a word. 

On his lecture circuit. 

Until finally one person would break the silence with a nervous chuckle. Then another. And eventually the room was swept up in hilarity without his having said a word. 

Kurt Vonnegut said,

“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh because there is less cleaning up to do afterward.”

Straight women with English degrees will tell you not to engage with fair-skinned men who cite Twain or Hemingway or Vonnegut because theirs is a toxic masculinity that protects its misogyny, its racism, by stabbing a rose into the buttonhole of its rhetoric. Like Hemingway in his memoir saying,

We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other. Also Scott’s got a small penis and he’s stressed about it.”

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

There’s good precedent for this. I know about the precedent, the limitations and the connotations, but here I am, these being the words and figures that come to mind, the instruments I have for self-expression…

Same might be said of Jamie Clayton, a glittershot of hellish charisma in a slightly overstuffed movie that only works because of her strategic scarcity…a scarcity that, however useful for the preservation of mystique, leaves the viewer in a state of constant wanting. Maybe that’s a meta BDSM thing about withholding pleasure. Discipline and restraint. “Here’s Jamie Clayton. She’s terrific in the role. Don’t you want to hear her monologue? Raspy-sensuous? Filthy charisma? Well. Beg.”

Like a transcendentally hellish pain, the withholding. 

Like a tense quiet theater where a great speech is about to be made. 

Like finally sitting down to a movie that you wanted so badly to see, but that proves exceptional only by being fine.

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