Scenario: A stranger walks up to you and asks you to name the antagonists of the ‘Hellraiser’ franchise, who do you think of? Most would automatically go to the Hell Priest himself, Pinhead, and his small band of Cenobite followers, and it’s easy to understand why: they’re unique and frightening figures with a strong visual presence, and when summoned they bring a gruesome carnage with them. But are they truly the antagonists of this world created by Clive Barker? Or does their iconic appearances and mythology overshadow those whom both titles, ‘The Hellbound Heart’ and ‘Hellraiser’, refer to?
As far as the novella and the first two films are concerned, the Cenobites are not the villains. They are the consequence; they’re not driven by agendas or schemes, nor greed or envy. Hell, they’re not even the primary source of conflict within the earlier stories. There’s a business-like quality to them as they are bound by duty. You open Lemarchand’s puzzle box – the lament configuration – and they come as your prize to usher you down to a world of pleasure and pain. Nothing more, nothing less.
The true antagonists of the novella, ‘The Hellbound Heart’, and the two movies, ‘Hellraiser’ and ‘Hellbound: Hellraiser 2’, are, for the most part, Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman/Oliver Smith) and his Sister-In-Law, Julia (Clare Higgins). It’s important to note that I say “for the most part” because the second film minimizes Frank and brings in another villain with Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham), but because this opinion piece is themed specifically on Julia, I’m not going to dive too deep into Channard’s role as co-villain nor will I be exploring the series beyond the second film. That said, I will be talking about Frank since he serves as the catalyst, not only for the story itself, but also for Julia’s descent.
Frank Cotton is a thrill-seeker of sorts who is dulled by what the modern world offers, and is a man eager to explore the taboo; whether it be by seducing his brother’s bride-to-be just before the wedding, or by following Kircher’s ritualistic instructions while opening the Lament Configuration, or by even advancing on his niece, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), in scenes from both films – an extra creepy layer added with Barker’s decision to alter the source material by making her his niece rather than brother’s friend, as she is in the novella – and its his own pursuit of the ultimate desires and sensations that lead him down his own self-destructive path. However, his actions didn’t just lead to his own destruction, but also to that of those around him, including his own brother (named Larry and played by Andrew Robinson in the movie, but named Rory in the novella) and his sister-in-law Julia.
While Frank is the more consistent villain of this story, remaining the same character from the moment we’re first introduced to him all the way through to his death at the hands of Julia in the second film, it’s Julia who gets the majority of focus. She’s essentially the main character in the first story, arguably getting more screen time than our heroine Kirsty; hear me out here, there is no doubt that Kirsty is important as the story’s lead protagonist, but it’s Julia’s story that is integral and moves the plot along. Not all that different than Harley Quinn and The Joker, Julia becomes poisoned by Frank and her obedience and loyalty to him creates a monster within her.
In the first film, as Julia fantasizes about her first interactions with Frank, we get to see Clare Higgins play the character in a slightly different light; her hair long, her facial expressions warmer – a happy housewife content with the life she lives – that is until Frank comes knocking, seducing her and unlocking something within her; the cold, stern Julia that we’re introduced to is one who is no longer content, but rather one who yearns for the sense of danger that Frank offers. Despite her marriage to Larry, she has secretly vowed herself to Frank.
In the beginning as her and Larry are discussing the possibility of moving into the old Cotton home, she’s at first hesitant … until she learns that Frank had been there recently, and then she changes her mind. Eventually she gets what she longs for when Frank becomes resurrected after some of Larry’s blood spills to the ground, and although at first she is appalled by his grotesque appearance, her eagerness to rekindle her love affair with him leads her to agree to help him. Slowly she becomes pulled into his dangerous world; blinded by her affections, what starts off as a simple affair evolves into murder. With the first man that she lures home we get to see her discomfort. We see it at the bar, and then again when the man makes a move on her as they enter her home, but still, she pushes on – for Frank. After leading the man to the room upstairs, it’s not Frank that strikes the killing blow – it’s her. She bludgeons the man to death with a hammer and after he becomes a bloody mess on the floor, Frank emerges to collect what he needs to regenerate.
Julia leaves the room, shaken and covered with blood. She goes to the bathroom to wash up, and there’s this great moment where she looks at herself in the mirror. However, as it turns out the one man was not enough, and Frank requires more. She’s hesitant about this, still clearly shaken, but Frank convinces her to help once more as he explains the urgency of recovering fast before the Cenobites realize he’s escaped. This is the point where Julia transforms the most as we see her becoming more comfortable and less disturbed by the act, and there’s a scene that demonstrates this, in which her and Larry are watching a boxing match, and Larry turns to her and comments on how the violence of boxing used to make her sick, to which she replies “I’ve seen worse”. She’s become desensitized by her actions, and perhaps is at a point of no return.
There is only a sliver of humanity left within her, which gets tested when Frank expresses interest in his brother as a means of getting flesh. Julia is adamant that Larry not be touched and refuses to hand him over to his brother, and because of this she must go out once more to lure another man to his doom. The situation escalates from here as Kirsty witnesses Julia bringing a strange man into her father’s home and sneaks in behind them. Kirsty eventually discovers her Uncle Frank and just barely escapes his clutches. Since Kirsty is now aware of Frank and Julia, and is now in possession of the Lament Configuration, Frank is even more desperate to find new flesh before the Cenobites arrive – and finally that sliver of humanity left within Julia dissipates as she leads her husband to her lover upstairs, and to his death.
Julia, with her hands the dirtiest, has fully transitioned into the true villain of the story.
She shows no hesitation with trying to hold Kirsty for Frank to kill her, and learns all too late that he’s not as loyal to her as she was to him. The next time we her after getting stabbed and partially absorbed by Frank, she’s chained on a mattress with a puzzle box in her hands.
In the sequel Julia is resurrected by the villainous Dr. Channard, who gets a mental patient to mutilate himself on the mattress with a razor blade. Julia is now in the position of Frank, and convinces Channard to bring more to her so she can fully regenerate. Channard doesn’t bludgeon the sacrifices as she had done for Frank, instead she continues to take care of business herself. We come to find out later on in the movie that she serves Leviathan, her new god, and that she was allowed to come back so that she could bring it more souls, starting with Channard. Julia has fully embraced her role and navigates through the second film with a fierce confidence, and effectively becomes more deadly than Frank himself ever was – something she proves with ease when she literally rips his heart out from his chest while giving him the same “It’s nothing personal” line that he gave her when he killed her in the first. Unfortunately, she gets an unsatisfactory end not too long after that moment – a total waste of such a great character.
Looking at the first two films it’s clear that while Kirsty is the lead protagonist, Julia is the lead antagonist of both. More than Channard; More than Frank; And more than the Cenobites themselves, Julia is the villain, and a damn good one at that, but she’s often over-looked and almost never discussed, and that is a shame.
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