First, we need to establish the mood… press play, then continue reading.
I’ve long been a fan of Marvel Comics’ villainous Hellfire Club, in fact I much preferred them (at least in their early incarnation) to their main foes, The X-Men.
Created by Chris Claremont, the group first appeared in 1980’s UNCANNY X-MEN #129-134. In that Chris Claremont-John Byrne epic, we first met one of the shadowy group members of a rather kinky billionaire mutants, who adopted 18th century dress and used upscale private clubs for the super-rich and powerful as a front for their many nefarious schemes. Marvel’s Hellfire Club have their origins in both real life and fiction.
Yes, there was an actual Hellfire Club -- with their most famous headquarters not too far from where I live -- the Hellfire Caves in West Wycombe Park (Bucks, England):
Earlier the Club met for their revels at nearby Medmenham Abbey, by the Thames. That medieval ruin was renovated to resemble a Gothic structure, with this theme written in stained glass at the entrance: Do What Thou Will. An injunction later adopted by Alistair Crowley, the so-called ‘Wickedest Man in the World’.
And prior to this, at the rather more prosaic George & Vulture pub in the City of London:
Led by notorious rakehell and (briefly) Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-81), the real Hellfire Club met for the purposes of sharing esoteric information, lavish banquets -- and most notoriously -- ‘sex magik’ orgies…
The Club has contributed to the DNA of Claremont’s creation, but he also took inspiration from a number of other sources in the realm of fiction.
The writer drew on a number of TV shows and films for the peculiar ethos of the Hellfire Club.
I’ll also throw in a few of my own observations -- as always…
Claremont acknowledged a huge debt to a 1966 episode of the cult ITV show The Avengers (no relation) entitled ‘A Touch of Brimstone‘ where Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel encounters the perverted denizens of the club:
He also used the film world as a source for the names and appearances of some Hellfire Club characters.
Hypnotic manipulator Jason Wyngarde was inspired by Touch of Brimstone/Jason King star Peter Wyngarde, cyborg Donald Pierce by Donald Sutherland -- ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce in Altman’s M*A*S*H.
The Black King -and leader of the Club Sebastian Shaw (an absorber of kinetic energy), by the actors Robert Shaw and Star Wars’ ‘de-shelled’ Darth Vader Sebastian Shaw (name only):
Seb Shaw as Darth Vader (Return of the Jedi), not looking too chipper tbh
Density master Harry Leland owed a lot to Orson Welles, with his tubby frame and name that was a reference to Harry Lime from The Third Man and Joseph Cotten’s Citizen Kane reporter Jed Leland
Of course diamond-shape-shifting telepath Emma Frost to The Avengers‘s Diana Rigg.
I can see something of the Club’s disreputable activities in the flashback sequence at the beginning of the 1959 Hammer adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles:
A couple of years later, Hammer made a picture about the original HellFire club, but it was lacklustre.
And Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
Incidentally one of the stars of the orgy scene after this clip was in my Sky Arts Bob Fosse documentary last year. Indeed. I’m not showing that though, as younger/older viewers may be shocked. Or excited….?
2011’s X-Men: First Class wasted the premise of the Club -- which in the movie appeared like SophistiCats on a wet Wednesday afternoon:
Check out this fan attempt. Well at least they tried…
And finally a two-fer for you patient folk.
Not so hidden meaning in this comestible ad?
Well said Mr Essex.
Couldn’t have put it better myself.