There are few examples of a minor movie character who was elevated to star status by an actor’s phenomenal performance. The “lead cenobite” in Hellraiser was one of these characters. Most people better know this character by the name Pinhead. The actor who took Pinhead from unnamed character to predominant role in seven additional movies was Doug Bradley.
Doug Bradley was born in Liverpool, England on September 7, 1954. Following high school, Bradley and long-time friend Clive Barker started the “Dog Company,” a progressive theatre group. Barker focused on writing while Bradley turned his attention to acting. The rest is movie monster history. Bradley is among only five actors to ever play a role at least six times. His performance as Pinhead has made for legendary horror movie moments and earned him a spot in the Movie Monster Hall of Fame.
In addition to his incredible performance as Pinhead, Bradley has been active in the horror industry. He has worked with Barker on Nightbreed and Books of Blood. He has been in The Prophesy: Uprising, Pumpkinhead: Ashes to Ashes, A Vampire’s Tale, and Wrong Turn 5. In addition, Bradley has written a novel on the history of masks in society and their use in horror movies, titled Sacred Masks: Behind the Mask of the Horror Actor. He has provided narration on various albums for English extreme metal band, Cradle of Filth. Bradley has also narrated nine volumes of horror stories on CD titled Spine Chillers covering the works of such horror masters as H.P Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and many others.
I had the chance to talk to Doug Bradley about his work and the horror industry in general while at Horrorhound in 2011. He had a lot to share about his experiences and insights.
Ira Gansler: As someone who has worked in the horror genre for so long, how do you define horror?
Doug Bradley: I don’t really. I’m often asked in interviews to justify horror. A similar kind of question. What people are particularly driving at there is that given this war or that war or this natural disaster news story, with so much real horror in the world why do we need any more horror. I guess what I tend to do is often throw the question back and ask people “why comedy?” And they kind of look a bit blank and they say “because its funny” which is no justification. But if that’s an answer then the answer to what is horror is easy. It’s what scares us. It’s what frightens us. So that’s the simple answer. Obviously once you start to explore that any further it becomes very complicated story because what scares me doesn’t scare you and vice versa. There are given fundamentals that we are all afraid of, which is our mortality and fear of death, fear of dark, fear of the unknown, fear of how tiny a speck of dust we live on in the enormity of the universe and the terror that all of our endeavor may be, as far as the universe is concerned is neither here or there. Or its wasps, or giant sea creatures, or invaders from mars. Whatever it is. And that’s what makes horror so wonderful and vibrant is that there is no end to discovering the things that scare us.
IG: What draws you to horror? Why the horror industry?
DB: Well, I was a fan of horror movies when I was a teenager, before I knew I wanted to become an actor. When I became an actor it was not with any ambition to work in the horror genre. Hellraiser happened and as a result of that I’ve continued to work in the genre. And that’s fine with me because I’m still a fan. As a kid, it was ghost stories, they scared me stupid, but I could not get enough of them. Then I don’t know what is it that draws us to horror. For me, in terms of horror movies, I cut my teeth on the Hammer movies, it was Dracula and Frankenstein. But I think that horror belongs in a larger frame which is called fantasy and imagination. There is a lot in the work of classic art and classic literature, in the work of people like William Blake, john Webster, even Shakespeare. World mythologies, folk stories, they are all kind of using the same building blocks as horror. So all of that has always drawn me and attracted me.
IG: What do you think of the shift of emphasis of horror in the last ten years or so in horror from more of the frighten and the scare to almost more of the in your face gore?
DB: You’re talking about torture porn?
IG: Yes, sir.
DB: I’ll take gore with the best of them. It’s not really what draws me to horror in the first place, but it is certainly part and parcel with it. I have no problem with it. But for me, there always needs to be something else going on. Actually, the first Saw movie, I had a really good time with it. I thought that it was a really clever film. As the movies went on it became more about that. Hostel, I didn’t care for, it seemed to be just an excuse for bloodletting. I’m not going to get steamed up about that. You don’t really need an excuse for bloodletting as far as I’m concerned. I think it would certainly be a shame if it meant that horror was losing its imaginative roots, its roots in fantasy, its roots in mythology, its roots in something that, dare I say it, is something more meaningful then ripping bodies up. I always say, by the way, that the worst example of torture porn was not a horror film, as far as most people were concerned, it was that odious piece of crap that Mel Gibson foisted on us, The Passion of the Christ. I came out of – it actually occurred to me that we spent twenty minutes watching Jesus be flayed including them switching from a whip to a cat of nine tails. They show us the bits of metal cutting into wood. So if you’re now whipping somebody with that you’re ripping chunks of flesh off his back. By the time the guy comes to pick up the cross and carry it to Golgotha, I’m sorry but he’s bled out. He’s not carrying anything anywhere. Gibson is then unrelenting about the crucifixion. It was the point at which the Roman Centurions panic and leave and they want to make sure he’s dead. They stick the spear in his side and this power shower of blood comes pouring out of Christ’s body. No idea where it came from, because he’s already lost all but about five fluid ounces of blood, I think. And the centurion is kind of luxuriating in this shower of blood. I was almost expecting him to get the loofa out and start scrubbing his back and singing Bing Crosby songs to himself. And that was actually the point where I thought to myself “this is exactly like pornography.” Because pornography has no interest in tiresome things like plot, and narrative, and character development, and tension, and so forth. It is only interested in showing us the act over and over again in as much detail as possible. That’s why we love pornography. That seemed to me to be exactly what was going on in Passion of the Christ. It was completely empty. There was no passion, no drama, no psychology, no dramatic tension, no nothing. Just this orgy of bloodletting, but it’s all put in this safe context because it’s about Jesus, it’s religious, it really happened, which is debatable. So it’s okay. And that annoys. If horror makes a movie like that, there’s all hell to pay. If you make a movie like that about Jesus, it’s fine.
IG: So do you think horror can ever go too far in terms of what it portrays to us?
DB: No. Obviously, in terms of what you can and can’t portray, you are bound by what is acceptable on screen and what you can put on film. But I would personally say, no. I mean we are all very nervous about anything involving children, animals, and so forth, but certainly no. I would say it is the responsibility of horror to probe everything and everywhere.
IG: Why do you think characters like Pinhead, Jason, Freddy, the big ones people think of when they think horror franchise, continue to resonate so much with the fans over the years?
DB: I don’t know. I can only say that I think there’s a kind of mythological level on which these characters work. We are, all of us, Jason, Freddy, Michael, me, Chucky, Captain Spaulding, etcetera, we’re all manifestations of the boogey man one way or another. There is a trickster element to the characters as well. I guess maybe I’m too close to the wood to see the trees because I’m part of the process. But I just think it’s that element.
IG: When you look at the research on fear, a lot of the common acceptance is that one of the biggest things that generate fear in people is fear of the unknown and fear of things that we are unable to adapt into our own schema of reality and what there is in our world. With that, how do you keep a character like Pinhead, who has been around for so many years, scary?
DB: I think there’s kind of two levels on which the big things that scare us develop. I grew up as a child in the 60’s. For my generation and the generation slightly older that grew up in the 50’s, there was that immediate fear of nuclear war and nuclear annihilation. We’ve kind of moved forward from that now. There are a whole new level of things that take the place of that red menace and the fear of nuclear annihilation. It’s now called terrorism, and dirty bombs, and global warming. And our knowledge and our understanding of our planet and our place in it and the solar system and the universe we are a part of has expanded so exponentially in the last thirty/forty years. And with it comes a whole other trench of fears. We now know that Yellowstone Park is a super volcano and it will blow and it will destroy us when it does. We now know that Grand Canarias is going to fall into the ocean at some point soon and it will create the mother of all tsunamis when it does and will drown most of the east coast. We know that the big one is going to hit the west coast of America sooner or later and it’s probably going to make Los Angeles an off-shore pacific island when that happens. We know that we are going to be hit by an asteroid at some point which is going to cause greater or lesser damage to the planet, possibly wipe us all out the way the dinosaurs went. And we now have a concept of the distances involved in the universe we live in. We know that planets and stars are dying and being born all the time. We now know that our sun is roughly middle-aged and is going to die in roughly four billion years. There’s nothing comforting in this news. These are not cheery thoughts. But these are kind of the profound terrors and fears that underpin our daily lives. We get up in the morning and we go about our business knowing that our lives, and ourselves, and our concepts of ourselves hangs by the thinnest of threads. We know that we are a heartbeat away from dying in a car crash every time we get in a vehicle. We know that our sanity hangs by a string. It’s very easy to undermine our sanity. We carry all of this with us. You put all of that on one side because these are real and immediate things. A character like Pinhead really goes back to me talking about us being manifestations of the boogeyman. A mythological figure. We’ve always had the devil and the devil has always been conveniently there for us to hang everything we don’t like onto him. I am an atheist. The devil doesn’t work for me. I don’t believe in the devil. But the devil is a reflection of the darkness in our own heads. That’s what people respond to when they respond to Freddy and Pinhead and so forth. Those characters are out of time and those fears are primeval. You don’t need to keep them fresh. It’s always fresh. You don’t need to do anything. It’s always there.
IG: Just to finish up, Mr. Bradley, what do you think is the future of the horror genre?
DB: I don’t know and I wouldn’t pretend to try to predict it.
IG: Do you have any hopes for it?
DB: I don’t know that horror needs any hopes. It’s fine. I’m really not worried about it. It’s ever-present, it’s always there. It is a genre that has never gone out of fashion. It never goes out of fashion for one good reason; it reflects our psyches. Westerns have gone out of fashion and so forth, horror will never go away and it will never go out of fashion. And it will always be re-invented. It will always be finding new avenues to explore and new paths to go down.