Hellraiser on Elm Street: An oral history of locally-filmed horror
*Editor’s note: After this article appeared, Peter Atkins wrote the following in an email, “The budget was certainly low, but it was WAY more than $50,000. My memory is that the budget for the NC shoot was about $1.2 mil, with something like another $300,000 spent on post-production.”
“Pinhead’s here,” my friend Julia said one night 26 years ago in Greensboro.
I scanned the crowded Rhinoceros Club and asked if she meant the bartender or her boyfriend. The former was someone we argued politics with. The latter was a tall man whose tiny noggin amused our vicious circle.
“No, asshole, the guy with nails in his head from Hellraiser!”
She meant Doug Bradley, the British actor best known as the nail-studded Lord of Pain and Pleasure horror fans dubbed Pinhead. Bradley had played Pinhead in 1987’s Hellraiser and its 1989 sequel Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, both shot in England. He was in Greensboro working on Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth. The previous films took place in a sort-of London full of British actors with dubbed American accents. Now, to paraphrase the Leonard Cohen song Don Henley slaughtered at Bill Clinton’s inauguration, the Hellraiser demonology was coming to the USA.
Julia pointed at a mild-looking man I recognized without his makeup, due to his having reverted to human form at the end of Hellraiser 2. As John Hammer poured whiskey, Freddie Krueger’s latest rival endured the enthusiasm of a local magician, who inexplicably babbled about Star Trek while producing a shilling from Bradley’s ear. The British coin suggested the prestidigitating Trekkie had come looking for the actor. Me, too. I wanted to interview Bradley for an article I hoped to sell to the magazine Fangoria.
That never happened. The bemused Brits button-holed by the shilling-twirling Tarheel included not only Bradley, screenwriter Peter Atkins and publicist Stephen Jones, but an Atlanta-based journalist Fangoria had flown down to cover the shoot. Interrupting their Trekkie tormenter, I introduced myself by saying Neil Gaiman told me to say hi.
The creator of Sandman and future best-selling author of “American Gods” had known them since his early days in journalism. Then still living in the UK, Gaiman had recently flown to North Carolina’s DEG studios to meet producers interested in “Good Omens,” the 1990 novel he had co-written with Terry Pratchett. Over surf-n-turf in Wilmington, he told me that his old mates would be filming in Greensboro and I should look them up.
While I never got to interview Bradley, Atkins and Jones declared any friend of Neil’s a friend of theirs, making us welcome at the downtown shoots and the Rhino afterward. I became particular friends with Atkins, with whom I’d exchange letters and phone calls for years before we lost touch for no good reason. This article has gotten us back in contact.
Atkins took an active part in the filming of Hellraiser 3 that might not have happened in Hollywood, where it’s uncommon for the writer to be involved in the filming. “I was originally only going to be there for two weeks prep before the cameras rolled,” he wrote in a recent email. “But Tony Hickox (director), brought on to direct at very short notice after the producers fired Tony Randel (Atkins’ friend from the old days in Liverpool who’d directed Hellraiser 2), wanted to keep me there.”
When told there wasn’t enough money in the budget to do that, the director cast Atkins in the small role of the bartender transformed into a “Cenobite,” as the S&M demons who made their film debut in writer/director Clive Barker’s 1987 Hellraiser were called. “I’m sure the producers were very grateful once I nobly took on the job of casting strippers from the club next door for our Boiler Room sequences,” he wrote.
Hellraiser 3 premiered in the United States on Sept. 11, 1992. Domestically, it earned $12,534,961 on a cost of approximately $50,000. It was the first release by the Weinstein Company’s Dimension Films, but none of the cast or crew had any contact with Harvey Weinstein. Atkins said the film was, “so successful in terms of production costs versus Box Office returns that Miramax, who’d come in only as distributors after we’d made the movie, bought ownership of the franchise from producer Larry Kuppin and commissioned Hellraiser 4.”
I asked Atkins if he remembered something he said one time at the Rhino when he quipped, “I never thought filming in North Carolina meant dealing with the Mafia.” Being British, he pronounced the “a” as in “math.”
In the ‘90s, money flowing from the High Point International Furniture Market made Greensboro the strip club capital of the South. A Triad restaurant owner capitalized on this by opening several clubs, one of which was where Atkins held auditions. Shortly into the process, he said he received a message that the owner was angry he’d not come downstairs and introduced himself. “What’s the matter with you, you come to my place but don’t pay me respect?” he described the owner saying.
Answering my recent email question about this, Atkins said it was not a shake-down, but a friendly warning by a man who said he didn’t want to see his employees exploited. Regardless of whether that now-deceased restaurateur had mob ties, his longtime reputation for being “connected” was something he actively encouraged as a way of seeming more intimidating.
In that email, Atkins recalled the club owner as “a very interesting fellow” and wrote that despite “the secret that everyone in town seemed to know,” he was friendly and generous. “I had a couple of private dinners with him, and he reminded me of some ‘self-made men’ I’d known in Liverpool, so we got on fine.”
I told Atkins I recalled him being bemused that he couldn’t buy alcohol on a Sunday, but could purchase a pistol at the gun show near the Howard Johnson’s where the crew was housed. He replied that the High Point Gun Show seemed bizarre to him then, if less so now that he has in-laws who own a horse farm in Georgia. But, he said, it “didn’t faze” Hickox. He recalled Hickox buying the film’s heroine Terry Farrell, whom Hickox was dating and who would go on to play Jadzia Dax in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, “a small pearl-handled revolver” as a romantic gesture. “Because flowers were a little conventional.”
Atkins wasn’t the only member of the crew who unexpectedly found himself playing a hell-spawned Cenobite. That also happened to Eric Willhelm, now a Charlotte-based sound engineer, who was studying film at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Besides being a student, Willhelm delivered pizza for Domino’s. In a Facebook message, he wrote that his boss was a film buff “entranced” by the idea of a Hellraiser movie happening here. “One day he told me there was an open call for extras for a bar scene, and asked if I wanted to be one,” wrote Willhelm, saying that it seemed a vicarious thrill on his boss’s part. “He even let me take off work!”
Willhelm showed up at the shoot, where he was approached by two crew members asking his height and weight. When he told them, they asked if he wanted to be a Cenobite.
“I wasn’t even sure what a Cenobite was, but I said yes!”
He said the actor playing the club DJ, who was resurrected as a Cenobite with CDs sticking out of his head, had left town before his post-transformation scenes. “They had the suit already made for him, and now he was gone.”
In one scene, the Cenobite whom fans would call “CD Head” (there’s even a trading card of Willhelm labeled that) walks out of the club in High Point, pulls a CD out of his head, and throws it into the head of a cab driver in Greensboro.
Hickox told Wilhelm to hurl the CD directly at the camera, but, Willhelm said, “you can’t really throw a CD in a straight line.” Plus, he could barely see in the makeup. “So I take the CD and throw it, and it totally beans the director in the face! I can still smell and feel that costume,” wrote Willhelm. “It was really tight and cumbersome.” It was now the beginning of October, and there was an early chill in the air. “You would think the costume plus makeup would keep me warm, but it didn’t.” He added that he’d hoped that he could keep the costume and wear it on Halloween, but “no such luck.”
Willhelm was paid $400. “In cash, under the table,” he told me in a Facebook message. Even though he ended up on a trading card, on the cover of Fangoria magazine, and as an action figure. “All in a day’s work for an underpaid pizza delivery boy,” he wrote.
Some locals were paid less and had less fun. Allison Malloy was working at Traxion Studios while finishing her degree at UNCG when she heard that the production needed extras. The instructions were simple. Bring or wear a “sexy/shiny” evening or cocktail dress and come in makeup. There was no compensation, but being a big fan of the series, she came.
She wrote me that she “was struck by how run-down and sketchy the set seemed; I’m wondering if it was filmed at one of those empty places used for the furniture market.” The person in charge of extras chose a dress, and she changed and sat in a chair and waited to be called. After an inspection, she joined a group placed at various tables in what was supposed to be a restaurant. “There was half-cooked food on plates and water in glasses, and we were told to wait.”
She wrote that the scene was very different in real life than it looked in the movie, where it’s an elegant restaurant with a string ensemble playing while women dance behind screens. On set, they danced to Van Halen while the diners were “ate” and “talked” without making a sound.
Star Terry Farrell entered with “the soap opera actor who played J. P. the Club Owner” (Kevin Bernhardt, who played Kevin O’Connor on General Hospital and Father McBride on Dynasty).
“They did their lines several times, with the extras pretending to talk and eat and the string ensemble pretending to play and the dancers dancing,” she said. Malloy said her main memory is of how famished she was. “Staring at half-cooked food would gross out most people, but made me hungry. They had a popcorn maker, and now whenever I think about or see any part of any Hellraiser movie, I smell popcorn.”
Atkins and Jones were the ones I hung out most with while the film was shooting in Greensboro, and both of them wrote that they have fond memories of the area, emphasizing how struck they were by its beauty.
Those interested in reading fine horror fiction should check out the award-nominated “Rumors of the Marvelous” by Atkins, his collection of short stories that’s available on Kindle and in paperback from Amazon. Jones has long been one of the premier editors in the field of horror fiction. You can’t go wrong with any of his “Best New Horror” anthologies, but locals might want to start with “Best New Horror 7,” as it contains the last known fiction written by Greensboro’s Jane Rice.
The second night I saw Doug “Pinhead” Bradley at the Rhino, he said “thanks for rescuing us from that horrid magician chap.” The last time I saw him was five years later, at a comic book convention in Charlotte. The guy running it had won the Florida lottery and spent much of it restocking the guest lounge with free top-shelf liquor every hour. Over a bottle of Macallan, Bradley claimed this was his first time in North Carolina, insisting Hellraiser 3 had been filmed in Australia.
Before I could argue, a scantily-clad green woman accidentally tipped an enormous framed painting of a bare-chested and kilted character from Star Trek onto the aging actor who played him. When I turned back around, Bradley and the bottle were gone. To this day, I don’t know if he was having me on.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.