The structural simplicity of the horror genre has always provided a sort of narrative budget to explore other ideas. When you have a fairly straightforward arc from establishment – spooky stuff – reveal – fight – conclusion, there is plenty of space to tell an implicit story on top of the surface level plot. The combination of commercial appeal and the raw metaphysics involved was always going to land on an exploration of the relation between sex and violence, and by the 80s, the horror movie genre had plumbed this fluffernutter sandwich with about as much depth as you can achieve in 90 minutes. There is no other contender for the best treatment – for me, it’s Hellraiser.
There’s never really a question about what kind of movie we’re watching. Immediately we see the McGuffin of the puzzle box, the initial victim, and the dismembered flesh-pile he is rendered into. This takes all of three minutes of screen time. Got it – cursed box summons a monster. I wonder if our Final Girl will accidentally invoke its dark powers and have to fight the shadowy figure doing the dismembering?
Fortunately, this is a smarter film. The victim, Frank, isn’t just a disposable excuse to establish the monster – he turns out to be what you might call the primary antagonist. The equivocation here is because his kill count stands at a miserly 1, and that off-screen. Mostly he motivates the murders of our chilly 80s English ladyboss, Julia. When Frank is supernaturally reborn, he requires the victims to be lured and laid out by Julia to reconstitute himself into a corporeal form.
Like any good homosexual, the writer/director Clive Barker will dole out infinite physical punishment to men, but reserves a special place for misogyny. Frank’s sin was that, after a life of increasingly exotic whoring, he felt a near Faustian desire to transcend the boundaries of carnal pleasures, which led him to seek out and use the puzzle box. Unfortunately, this involved summoning demonic entities without any notion of a pleasure / pain distinction , dragging him to a garden of earthly delights for endless tortures. His escape is essentially an accident brought on by the mixture of the residue of his own fornical semen with the blood of the man he was cuckolding.
The last part is important – surely it couldn’t be the mixture of any man’s blood that would bring him back, or every poorly laundered Best Western would be a candidate. The nature of adultery to a man is corruption of blood – the risk that one’s bloodline becomes polluted with strange seed. To the woman, the corruption is spiritual, reaching even into hell – Frank’s residue is a symbolic stain on the psyche of Julia, corrupting her actions even as she marries Larry and becomes stepmother to his daughter. Frank’s seed encountering the cuckolded husband Larry’s blood is symbolic of the fact that his corruption has infiltrated the physical house where Julia and Larry intend to make a home.
Which brings us to Julia’s backstory, and the Woman Question according to Clive Barker. Her motivation here is probably sufficient to slide in under suspension of disbelief, which makes it that much more of an insult – you see, Frank was a really sexy piece of shit back in the day, with switchblades and tattoos and such. So naturally, when he materializes as a wheezing flesh-speckled rotting skeleton, she can’t help but remember the Good Times and accept his request to help him reconstitute. She is literally whored out to seduce incels and bring them back to the spooky attic so they can be consumed.
In the third act, the contrast between these male and female indulgences of id is synthesized, as Julia finally lures her husband Larry as Frank’s final victim. Frank literally wears his skin, impersonating him, until he finally betrays and kills Julia and threatens Larry’s daughter Kristy, with a distinctly sexual undertone. The evil stepmother and the evil “step” father, the father-thing, are the two sides of the betrayal and destruction of the family structure that properly exists to channel these base desires to good ends. In a further symmetry, Frank and Larry end up being two different archetypes of male corruption, with Frank giving into desires even to the extent of sexually threatening his niece/daughter, and Larry too impotent to notice the monster in his own attic or the whorishness of his wife.
The brief appearances of the Cenobites, the movie poster monsters that Frank is fleeing from, are almost superfluous to this whole endeavor. We just as easily could have ended with Kristy defeating Frank directly and sending him back to hell, but instead get the spectacle of these ultimate sadomasochists retrieving Frank once he announces his True Name, like some eldritch posse after a bail-jumper. It’s not that they’re even punishing Frank for his debauchery as such – they were just as happy to take Kristy because, simply, “the box – you opened it, we came”. Closing the box is, oddly, sufficient to dismiss and escape them, at least for Kristy.
So in this neat assemblages of different forms of corruption – male and female, dissolute and impotent – who are the Cenobites? Rather than being a corruption of the family per se, they drag victims out of the family (in fact out of the world) entirely. Their “victims” (“demons to some, angels to others”) don’t know what they’re getting into, only that they exist in a plane somehow “beyond” extremes that anyone would have reason to encounter in their normal existence. Sometimes, they’re just unlucky.
The Cenobites, then, are what happens when corruption stops being a parasitical construct destroying (while existing in) a family, and becomes a inscrutable, endogenous well of filth. An insular subculture, if you will. Clive Barker’s inspiration isn’t exactly difficult to infer purely based on visual style, even absent his straightforward explanation, but it is usually phrased in an excessively narrow way. A pseudo-sexual subculture beyond the symmetries of nature, seeking further extremes of as they reproduce by trickery of the unwise or force versus the unlucky, leaving their victims in a hell that some cling to, while others try desperately to detransition back to their physical form?
Well, thank God, it’s just a movie.