Monday, 10 June 2013

Hellraiser (1987): The Functions of Masochistic Desire in the British Horror Film, Part One

(This post was originally part of an undergraduate essay, I'm not sure if I agree with all of its arguments now, but it's an example of quite an early attempt at writing about masochism and abjection, some recurring themes in my work)

In this essay I plan to examine the forms of masochistic desire evident in two films from the British horror genre, what significance and meaning they hold in the films they feature and how the audience participates in sharing this masochist pleasure. I will be looking at the films Hellraiser and A Company of Wolves. These films, I believe have strong threads of masochistic desire but both approach them in unusual and unconventional ways. I will be reading these films following Leo Bersani’s ideas of a “self-shattering pleasure” as I feel the functions of masochism can paradoxically be seen as both positive and negative in its enabling powers of expressing identity for the films characters- aiding revelations of self through a shattering of imposed social or sexual roles and also a means of total self destruction through the same self-shattering experience.  

Firstly I’m going to look at Hellraiser. Within the film there is a complex system of masochism on screen and off- in terms of audience identification as masochistic spectators. This pleasure is derived from the pleasure of watching scenes of abject horror. The notion of pleasure of filth is foregrounded by Hellraiser’s opening scene, the audience is not granted access to who is present and where the action is taking place, instead precedence is given to a visual and aural feast of enjoyment of all things dirty - the dense buzzing of flies are heard while a close-up shot shows a filthy finger nailed hand, while the line “what’s your pleasure?” is heard. The connotations of dirt of decay are therefore linked to pleasure, seen to represent a moral collapse or degradation. 
The next scene, of the house’s interior is the stage to what Kristeva might call a site of “pure abjection”, the filth is audible, scratching and buzzing sounds of the insects and rats crawling over rotting food and moulding floor boards. The dark, womb like bedroom interior, personifies a broken body; blood, guts and body parts hang from swinging, whistling chains. The audible and visible is very expressive in this film, used to give the abject a visceral dimension- disgusting to the eye yet pleasing to the ear. At the end of the film Frank becomes an embodiment of pleasure in the abject. Theodor Reik propose that, 'when the body is consciously felt as ugly, and the phantasy of the display as disgusting, this feeling itself becomes characteristic or the masochistic pleasure and contributes essentially to sexual excitement'. When Frank is finally caught by the Cenobites and strung up by hooks and chains covering his body, ripping and stretching his flesh, Frank slowly, sensuously licks his lips, lets out a laugh and at the climatic moment states “Jesus wept”! 
This I think is a really crucial scene in understanding the films masochistic meanings. The position of Frank’s body in chains, arms outstretched filling the frame is unmistakably that of a crucifixion. The fact he says “Jesus wept” makes this connection or reference explicit. The film is also rife with religious iconography. Small icons of Mary and Jesus are left in Frank’s bedroom alongside the pornographic photographs Julia picks up. After fleeing the house, Kristy in a white (connotations of all american youth of purity and virginity) t-shirt covered in blood and sweat (sex, menstruation) runs past two Nuns who we see looking at Kristy with disapproval. When Julia and Larry explore the house for the first time, a statue of Jesus drops out of a closet (the closet being perhaps a rather clunky allusion to Frank’ desire for exclusively male victims) and startles them. This can be seen as a reminder of the original masochist aesthetic- Jesus on the cross, pain and martyred bliss present on his face, seen in a thousand depictions in Religious art. Religion is ever present in this film, representing the moral warning of the evil dangers of acting on the pleasures of the flesh.
My next example of a masochistic delight in the abject, for the protagonists as well as for the audience; is the death scene of Frank’s last victim. The head and shoulders of the victim are situated at the far right of the frame with Frank’s body taking up much of the remaining space leaving a small gap to his left, this gap I feel is where the viewer insert its/ourselves as viewing from Julia's point of view, who watches with a mixture of fear and excitement, seen in her heavy breathing and rapt facial expression. Frank shouts back to Julia not to watch as he devours the victim, we hear a slurping, suckling sound not dissimilar to the very appetising sound of a milkshake being sucked up with a straw. The imperative “don’t look” is frequently repeated , and we do not see what finally happens to the victims bodies once the camera eye has shifted its gaze. But we hear the action by these often very sensuous sounds. This tactic of not showing but hearing, leaves the viewer (sharing POV with Julia or Kristy depending) expectant and imagining the horrors we are not permitted to witness. This pleasure is a particularly masochistic one, the enjoyment of the filth, that which repels and attracts us in equal measure.
The relationship between Julia and Frank defies conventions of a sado-masochistic union. In fact, such a union of a sadist and masochist pairing is impossible according to Gilles Deleuze. In Coldness and Cruelty he states, 'But the intention to convince, is merely apparent, for nothing is more alien to the sadist than the wish to convince, to persuade, in short to educate'.  Put simply, a true sadist would find no pleasure in a compliant victim. In Hellraiser Julia and Frank find compatibility in shifting roles as they acquiesce in satisfying the others’ needs. Julia first appears on screen as the paradigm of eighties power-dressed womanhood. Everything about her appearance is sharp, from the shoulder padded jacket to the make-up highlighting her eyes, which are drawn out at the corners making her gaze seem feline and predatory. Her lips are painted a powerfully symbolic, sexual scarlet. A sharp silver broach on her chest catches the light, drawing attention to its own sceptre-like threat.  In short she is dressed as the symbolic femme fatale villain.  Yet under this outward display of sex and power- when she speaks her voice is soft, feminine and actually rather sweet.  Her masochistic tendency is suppressed by the accoutrements of a liberated eighties power-dresser. Gaylyn Studlar via Deleuze explains this discordance: 'the femme fatale may appear to be sadistic, but as Deleuze insists it is the pseudosadism necessitated by the woman’s incarnation of the “element of inflicting pain in an exclusively masochistic situation"'. During the film's flashbacks we learn (or are told) that perhaps her pretence of control hides her desire for sexual submission. For it is Frank that rips at her clothes with a sharp silver knife, it is his sexual aggression we see on the bed. Yet this does not mean that Julia and Frank do not both show equal sexual agency. Julia’s desires match Frank’s in spite of her wish to be dominated. Deleuze could be describing Julia’s attraction to Frank; “We are no longer in the presence of a torturer seizing upon a victim and enjoying her all the more because she is unconsenting and unpersuaded. We are dealing instead with a victim in search of a torturer and who needs to educate, persuade and conclude an alliance with the torturer in order to realize the strangest of schemes'.
Frank’s form of masochism is quite different from Julia’s; his pursuit for pleasure is dangerous and ultimately nihilistic. Frank’s actions towards Julia are in a rather sadistic vein; he is assertive to the point of violence and sexually aggressive. At one point while coercing her into providing him with more victims, he tries to sway her with the promise of his body restored to all its sadistic capabilities, Frank says to Julia: “we can be together- like love- only real”, this statement reminds me of a phrase the Marquis de Sade gives to a character in the book Justine, 'Now there is no sensation in an object more quickening than suffering; the impressions are positive and do not deceive like those of pleasure'. What I take from this statement is that pain does not lie like love can, for Frank, pain is the only true sensation. Despite Frank’s incapacity and his reliance on Julia, he still holds great power over her. She seems equally attracted too and fearful of him.  In some ways she acts the stronger partner, providing sustenance by feeding him male victims. Yet rather than being a mother figure, I picture Julia as the stereotypical "Lady Macbeth" character, seen from her furiously cleaning her hands of blood after doing the dirty work Macbeth/Frank, was unable to do himself. Julia’s actions of making Frank whole allows her indulgence in her own masochistic pleasure, yet in the process of realising these; she shatters her humanity thus becoming a monster. In Hellraiser the transformative possibilities of following ones desires are strictly negative. Leo Bersani explains, 'We desire what nearly shatters us, and the shattering experience is, it would seem, without any specific content- which may be our only way of saying that the experience cannot be said, that it belongs to the non-linguistic biology of human life'. In this case the “self-shattering” pleasure leads to a complete break down of boundaries that leaves Julia and Frank beyond redemption. It could be either Julia or Frank, who is the “Hellraiser” of the film’s title.
Frank’s quest for experience is expressed as a rather bourgeois rejection of his semi-detached middle class suburban house in favour of what appears to be from the outdoor market, high-light and dust- a hot eastern climate. This escape into unknown places represents his search for unknown pleasures. This pursuit ruptures relationships with family as well as from society as a whole- when Julia and Larry move into the house they do not know where Frank is, whether he is alive or dead.  This isolation allows for the privacy needed by the masochist, expressed in Hellraiser by Frank’s constant commands of “don’t look at me” and Pinhead’s comment “this is not for you eyes”, said to Kristy before ripping Frank apart. In her book Male Subjectivity in the Margins, Kaja Silverman explores the experience of the male masochist, 'The male masochist magnifies the losses and divisions upon which cultural identity is based, refusing to be saturated or recompensed. In short he radiates a negativity inimical to the social order'. It is not just that this perversion is antisocial in and of itself but that in our patriarchal society; masochism is seen as a particularly feminine perversion. Frank’s experience with the Cenobites, gives him what he has been searching for, an extreme “self-shattering pleasure” that for him breaks down societal  notions of masculinity. The Cenobites literally shatter his body to pieces; this can be seen without too much of a leap, to represent Frank’s desire for autonomy as a desiring object rather than the limiting notions of what is to be “male”. So much of what characterises a "man" is tied to his body image of strength and power. By breaking his body with pain, he breaks the illusionary notions of a socially constructed idea of man.  In a world that is built upon such illusions, for Frank pain is the only reality one can be sure of, Deleuze states, 'The pain he suffers is the ultimate pleasure, not because it satisfies a need to expiate or a feeling of guilt, but because it confirms him in his alienable power and gives him a supreme certitude'.

Part Two: The Company of Wolves (1984): The Functions of Masochistic Desire in the British Horror Film

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