❉ Looking for a way to spice up your sex life? Crack open a cursed puzzle box. No, really, it should probably be fine.
Fans of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser film series will likely already be casting a glance toward The Hellbound Heart, Bafflegab’s new audio iteration of the novella that spawned the Hellraiser franchise. The production also has a big shot in the arm of Mighty Boosh and Doctor Who star power, with recognizable voices popping into the fray in the leads.
Familiarity with the story isn’t strictly necessary. The audio adaptation carries itself admirably – the only true issue is a potential need for delineation between flashbacks and present-day scenes, which on a marathon listen can run together a bit more than was likely intended. Regardless, it encapsulates the story well for those who have limited or no familiarity with the source, enough that you don’t end up feeling lost. And the variation between voices is… while occasionally a bit off the wall… still helpful, especially when we begin getting a few one-shot victims rolling through.
If somehow you’ve made it to 2018 without knowing what Hellraiser is about… well, it’s about a balls-to-the-wall hedonist who needs a new thrill so bad that he uses a puzzle box to summon interdimensional sadomasochists. When that goes exactly as well as you’d expect, since said Cenobites have very different ideas of “pleasure,” he calls upon his sister-in-law – with whom he’s been having an affair – to sacrifice innocent victims to him so he can escape back into our world.
Writer and actress Alice Lowe (Sightseers, Prevenge, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Blood On Satan’s Claw) takes the lead as Kirsty, the put-upon heroine. Fans of the films know Kirsty as Larry’s daughter – in the original book, as here, she’s a friend of Rory (Larry’s original name). She’s a strong center for the cast, but bides her time in early scenes. Lowe downplays herself admirably, pining awkwardly on the side until the plot brings her in full force – then brings her lead game through the third act.
Opposite her, we hear Neve McIntosh (Madame Vastra to Doctor Who fans) as the bloodthirsty Julia. She has her acting chops severely tested, put up against some serious challenges when it comes to depicting repeated scenes of dubious consent while still maintaining a sense of power. Said scenes may be uncomfortable for some listeners simply by their nature – but McIntosh holds her own through them.
And then there’s Tom Meeten of The Mighty Boosh and The Ghoul, dual-cast as brothers Frank and Rory Cotton. The decision to place one actor in both roles was, honestly, a fairly brave one. Especially considering the hedonistic Frank and the bless-his-heart Rory need to be differentiated easily. As for whether it works? Kind of… and kind of not.
Frank and Rory are absolutely two very different characters, to the point that I had to check the cast list to figure out whether they were played by one actor or two. Meeten’s vocal range is impressive, and he absolutely did create two very different personas. That said… when you’re going to those extremes, there is the risk of caricature. And the well-meaning Rory got exponentially more saccharine throughout, as Frank went further and further into Christian Bale Batman territory.
Fortunately, in a story as off-the-wall as The Hellbound Heart, verging on caricature isn’t as much of a crime as it would be in a subtler story. Meeten’s Frank was far more entertaining and well put together – not a surprise, since Rory is mostly there to show up at all the wrong times.
For a story that benefits largely from visuals, the audio adaptation is quite good. The climactic scene and denouement feel a bit rushed, with the final face-off feeling like a combination of over-edited segments that didn’t really need to be as tight as they ended up being. It takes you slightly out of the moment, but not enough to destroy the effect overall.
Incidentally, if you think you’ll be escaping the gross-out factor since it’s audio – you’re very, very wrong. Simon Robinson’s sound design is utterly disgusting in all the right ways. So if you’re easily affected by body horror and know the sorts of things the Cenobites get up to, your brain will do a fine job of filling in the blanks.
At 75 minutes, it’s a worthwhile evening’s listen. It isn’t absolute perfection, but the strong cast and sound design make up for any hiccups in the adaptation itself. And if Bafflegab ever wanted to continue forward with Kirsty’s character in the spirit of the films, it would be a treat to hear more of Lowe in the role.
❉ Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart comes out from Bafflegab April 27. It stars Alice Lowe (Prevenge), Tom Meeten (The Ghoul) and Neve McIntosh (Doctor Who). Click here for more information.
❉ Kara Dennison is a writer, editor, interviewer, and over-analyser of geek entertainment. She can currently be read in Stranger Tales of the City from Obverse Books. Find more of her work at karadennison.com or on her Twitter @RubyCosmos.