Let’s just get this out in the open: Horror is known for its franchises and I am known for getting sucked into them, for better and for worse. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) is another favorite of mine and one of the first horror movies I watched. In the sub-genre of supernatural horror, Hellrasier focuses on a seemingly harmless (and gorgeous) puzzle box that when solved opens up the gates to “hell” and summons the cenobites, beings of pleasure and pain. As with my article about A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Nancy Thompson, I’ll be focusing here on the qualities of the hero in this film who, in this case, is Kirsty Cotton (played by the amazing Ashley Laurence).
Kirsty’s life is turned upside down when her father Larry (Andrew Robinson) and her stepmother move into the large home that Larry inherited. Unknown to them all, Larry’s lowlife brother Frank (Sean Chapman) has been hiding out in the house where he solved the puzzle box, summoned the cenobites, and was violently ripped apart and dragged to hell. Oops.
However, Frank is linked to the spot where he was taken and when some of Larry’s blood is absorbed by the floor boards he is able to come back (as a horribly disfigured creature) and through the help of Julia (the stepmother, portrayed by Clare Higgins) he is able to slowly regain a human body while Julia kills unsuspecting men to feed him.
Now, after this long winded summary, Hellraiser has not only a final girl (Kirsty Cotton) but a femme fatale (Julia). Julia serves as a foil to Kirsty – Julia uses her sexuality to get her way, she is very selfish and greedy, and seemingly emotionally unavailable while Kirsty represents another “girl-next-door”, uses her keen observational skills to figure out what is ultimately happening around her, and has a big heart.
Kirsty first suspects foul play when she sees Julia enter her house with a strange man who Kirsty assumes Julia is cheating on her father with. Determined to catch Julia in the act, Kirsty follows the duo into the house but instead discovers Frank attacking and devouring the poor man’s body. After a terrifying struggle she is able to escape by throwing the puzzle box out the window and running out of the house while Frank is distracted.
Alone and out numbered, Kirsty is able to turn the tide without the help of anyone. She uses her logic to calculate a plan of escape and is able to outwit Frank and Julia. However, after collapsing and waking up in a hospital, Kirsty solves the puzzle box, not knowing what the consequence will be, and summons the cenobites who threaten to take her to the depths of hell to “taste [their] pleasures”.
Again, outnumbered by terrible creatures beyond her wildest nightmares, Kirsty is able to courageously stand up against and bargain with these demons promising to bring them Frank in exchange for her soul. Kirsty didn’t need the aid of a man to help her talk her way out of a dangerous situation. She proved twice that she is completely capable of turning any bad situation around.
Returning to her father’s home, who has now been killed by and impersonated by Frank, Kirsty bravely stands against both her evil stepmother and uncle alone, without calling her boyfriend (who she does have in the movie, coincidentally) to come assist her (which you could argue isn’t the best plan of action, but she is able to handle it just fine). She summons the cenobites to reclaim her uncle and when they still threaten to take her as well she is able to figure out the way to send them back by reconfiguring the puzzle box. She bravely stands against each cenobite, one by one, and by using her own power is able to vanquish each one. Even in the end when her boyfriend barges into the now crumbling house (I suppose the power of sending each cenobite back to hell is having a negative effect on the house’s structural integrity) it is Kirsty who saves him from being killed by a cenobite and then struggles against it to reclaim the box, while her boyfriend watches dumbstruck unable to assist her in any way.
What I love about Hellraiser is that while Kirsty is given a love interest he doesn’t serve much of a purpose. He doesn’t drive the narrative. That is left to Kirsty, and he doesn’t seem to be able to aid the heroine in any way throughout the film. He serves more as a prop than an actual character, which is what a lot of female characters do in action films. And when in the face of utter danger and terror he is the one to freeze and cower while Kirsty uses all her power to take back control of the situation, vanquish the demons, and save them both.
Sure, there are moments where Kirsty wavered, but what strong, powerful, brave hero doesn’t from time to time? Kirsty Cotton in Hellraiser is relatable in her fear, her strength and her courage. She’s not a macho man, a body builder, a trained assassin. Like Nancy Thompson in A Nighmare on Elm Street, she’s a normal, average girl who, when faced with the forces of evil, proved that women can be just as powerful as any man, if not more so.