Last night I watched the 1945 film classic, A Picture of Dorian Gray. Its a beautiful film shot in glorious black and white, but by today’s standard the pacing is snail-like and the performances a study in sleepwalking. In other words it’s a shocking departure from what we today consider storytelling, and yet somehow it still works. Hurd Hatfield’s cold-blooded Dorian is riveting. Is he, what we would call today, a psychopath? Or a product of the Victorian atmosphere surrounding him? Whatever the cause there’s a good reason when you Google, A Picture of Dorian Gray it’s the 1945 version and not the 2009 film that shows up.
Why can’t they tell stories like that any more? I wondered. Then I recalled another movie about a man with a corpse in his attic, Clive Barker’s 1987 Hellraiser. Written almost a hundred years after APODG, Hellraiser also concerns a man, Larry Cotton, with horrible secrets locked in his attic. Like Dorian, Larry is surrounded by a cast of characters, both clueless and otherwise, friends, girlfriends, and victims. These victims, or sins of Dorian Gray and Larry Cotton’s give or extend their lives. In Dorian’s case his portrait takes the beating while he stays forever young, while Larry’s corpse is brought back to life by feasting the blood of his victims.
So Hellraiser is an updated version of A Picture of Dorian Gray, with enough blood and guts, to keep modern-day audiences in their seats. I say modern due to it’s many sequels, and media versions, ie. graphic novels. (There’s been a talk of a remake of the film for years. As recently as October of 2013 Barker insisted the project was going forward.)
Both tales are filled with occult imagery, and talk of duality. Clive Barker tells us, “Angels to some, demon’s to others.” Oscar Wilde’s Dorian informs, “Each of us has heaven and hell in him.” Occult objects d’art liter both productions landscapes. Dorian’s sitting room looks like a Masonic temple, while Frank Cotton has his trip to Morocco and infamous puzzle box. More importantly these art objects are the touchstones of the films, a portrait for Mr. Gray, an ornate box for the Cotton Brothers. Last but not least both are authored by gay, English men. Maybe not least, but certainly last, both protagonists suffer the same fate in the end by dying for their sins.