In 1986, Clive Barker released his acclaimed novella The Hellbound Heart in the Night Visions anthology by Dark Harvest. A dark tale of lust, love and the flesh. Not long after its original publication, The Hellbound Heart was optioned for a film that ended up being directed by Barker himself–retitled as Hellraiser. Some parts of the story were changed for the adaptation, but the central character remained the same—an unsatisfied wife named Julia Cotton. In the novella, and first two entries in the Hellraiser franchise, Julia was the main antagonist. However, the wicked stepmother was never ‘the face’ of Barker’s dark fairy tale.

There’s no doubt that since the franchise began, Pinhead (or—as he is formally credited in the first movie—The Lead Cenobite) is the face of Hellraiser. From the first promotional posters, VHS box-art and so on, Barker’s peculiar-looking sadomasochistic creation was an instant attraction for fans of the horror genre. One of the most spectacular things about Hellraiser is the way in which Barker’s vision comes to life and invokes a fear from the audience due to his unusual, nightmarish, gory imagery. The fantastical elements in the films are often what any fan of Hellraiser, or Clive Barker in general, will remember them most fondly for. However, just like the novella in which Pinhead is simply a tactical part of the story, in the first two movies he wasn’t the lead antagonist—I’d go so far as to say that the cenobites were not antagonists at all. As frightening as their appearance and presence in the film is, they are merely gatekeepers of a darker foe. What makes The Hellbound Heart and its theatrical adaptation so horrific is not the monsters, but the humans—particularly Julia Cotton.

One advantage that Hellraiser has always had over other famous horror franchises is the female gaze, and perspective from the villain in the first two instalments. Julia dominates the screen thanks to Clare Higgins’s phenomenal performance and her cat-eyed glances, sly smirks with delicious satisfaction and, of course, her regal glamour. Higgins really takes to task on her character and makes Julia a villain that the audience loves to hate. At first, we are led to believe that Julia will be the heroine of the story as all the Gothic tropes and elements point towards that, yet Barker steers the genre—and character—in the opposite direction. Julia starts off as a character with a dilemma of the heart, someone who could easily be plucked from a Gothic novel. She feels a connection with her brother-in-law Frank that she doesn’t feel with her own husband. To state it bluntly: the sex with Frank was better. It’s not the most liberating of traits in Julia, admittedly, but her development from a cheating spouse to a coldblooded killer shows the lengths that she will go to so that she is reunited with Frank. Two particular scenes in the film show this transition perfectly as she stares at her bloody face in the mirror after taking her first victim—at first remorseful then with a hint of satisfaction. Later she watches a boxing match on television as Larry comments that the violence would usually repulse her. She smirks to herself before stating: ‘I’ve seen worse.’

Hellraiser was to be titled after the original novella but the studio thought it sounded too much like a romance novel. Struggling with a new title for the adaptation, Barker asked the production team for ideas and a female crew member offered the suggestion: ‘What a Woman Will Do for a Good Fuck’. It seems as though this is the box that Julia’s character was placed in originally: a lonely housewife still lusting after an affair with her brother-in-law. On the surface, yes, that’s exactly how her motive to kill comes to be. However, it’s how Julia’s character from the first film to second develops that really intrigues me. I’ve always thought of the Hellraiser filmsand a lot of Clive Barker’s work, in fact—as a dark fairy tale. Parts of the film and novella have often reminded me of the Bluebeard tale, for example. The attic acts as chamber of concealed horror, where a dead lover’s remains are kept hidden from the other lover. Although it isn’t Julia who has hung, drawn and quartered Frank, in this case, she would be the Bluebeard character in the story due to her betrayal of Larry. However, there is one other fairy tale that comes to mind when I think of Julia Cotton.

The most significant change in The Hellbound Heart’s transition to screen is the character of Kirsty. In the novella, Kirsty is a co-worker and friend to Roy (renamed Larry in the film), whereas in the theatrical adaptation she is his daughter. The change in Kirsty’s characterisation not only provides her with stronger ties to the central antagonist, but it also gives Julia a motive beyond just seducing sexually driven men into Frank’s lair. They’re family which makes Julia’s actions more personal and intimate for Bambi-eyed heroine. Hints of a rift between Kirsty and Julia are planted throughout the film, and often Julia seems disinterested in her husband’s daughter. It’s only when her drive to kill builds up that she has no problem with Frank taking her husband’s skin and is happy to oblige when he also wants Kirsty’s. Unfortunately, this is where it backfires and Julia is murdered by her lover without remorse as he smoothly tells her ‘It’s nothing personal, baby.’ Kirsty gives Julia some competition and acts as the obstacle between her and Frank finally being reunited. However, Frank seems to have more of an interest in his young niece than his onetime lover. This is where the allusions to Snow White begin and really fleshes out Julia’s character arc—she is the wicked stepmother in Barker’s deranged fairy tale.

After her death—by the hands of Frank—Julia is allowed to return to earth via Leviathan in Hellbound: Hellraiser II. The events of the first film have changed her into an evil servant of Hell and a colder, more calculated villain. Julia’s development from the first film into the sequel is an outstanding display—and masterclass—of how one goes bigger and better with a returning antagonist. Thanks to Peter Atkins’s brilliant screenplay, Clare Higgins plays the role with sublime relish and really sinks her teeth into Julia’s new attitudefor act two. The setting of the labyrinth-like underworld acts as the dark forest that Kirsty and her new puzzle-solving sidekick Tiffany must explore so that they can rescue Larry from his torment. However, out of the many obstacles in Kirsty’s way, it’s Julia who will be her toughest challenge to face. No longer the squeamish and bored housewife who wants to be with her male lover, Julia has more important interests now. So much so that when she comes face-to-face with Frank again, she literally rips his heart out. Julia sums up her wicked new attitude herself when she sees her stepdaughter again for the first time: ‘They didn’t tell you did they, Kirsty? They changed the rules of the fairy tale. I’m no longer just the wicked stepmother. Now I’m the evil queen. So come on! Take your best shot, Snow White!’

But of course, no fairy tale would have a satisfying ending unless the evil queen is defeated. And sadly, Hellbound: Hellraiser II was the last outing for Julia Cotton in the Hellraiser franchise. With the popularity of Pinhead, and the other cenobites, the franchise changed its original intention to have Julia Cotton continue as the lead antagonist. In the original ending of Hellbound, Julia emerges from her death once again, wearing a black gown to rule the underworld. Apparently, Claire Higgins didn’t want to return for any future films and the franchise became what it is today. As hard as it is to imagine Hellraiser without Pinhead, I often wonder what it would look like had Julia continued to be the main villain of the franchise. With a remake and television series on the way, I hope that we see Julia Cotton once again and see more of what this wicked stepmother can do.

Leeroy Cross James

Leeroy Cross James


Leeroy Cross James is a writer and reviewer of horror fiction whose literary criticism was recently published in Horrified Magazine.

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