‘Hellraiser’ Has Some Sights to Show You, and Not Much Else

I don’t think there’s a horror franchise out there with a bigger disparity between quality and quantity than Hellraiser. Ten films, over three decades, from a whole host of different writers, directors, and creative teams, and yet not single installment, save the original, comes anywhere close to being what a sane individual would consider ‘good.’

Which is a damn shame, really, because the first film, released in 1987, is one of the most visually and thematically unique horror films ever made. From the twisted mind of literary icon Clive Barker, based on his novella The Hellbound Heart, Hellraiser introduced the world to an entirely new breed of masochistic, hypersexualized, BDSM-inspired villains in the form of the Cenobites. Led by the now-infamous Pinhead, these demons of pleasure and pain present themselves to anyone tenacious enough to solve the Lament Configuration, sort of a goth, Hot Topic-looking Rubix Cube. Once they’ve arrived, it’s nothing but chains, whips, and torture for the poor soul who solved the puzzle. The Cenobites like it rough, and if you’re not into that sort of thing, too bad: There’s no safe word here.

Demons to some, angels to others (in their own words), the Cenobites are a unique, fascinating group of antagonists that exists in a delightfully grey area for their first outing. The real villains in Hellraiser are the human characters, with the otherworldly ghouls simply acting as impartial mediators dolling out punishment to whoever deserves it. It’s a frighteningly titillating experience, equal parts horrific and erotic, and marks a pronounced departure from the standard slasher fare that had become par for the course in the mid 80s. Yet despite this strong initial showing, the franchise could never really live up to this initial hit. And nine sequels later, we’re left with a direct-to-video, bargain-bin franchise where even it’s iconic star in Pinhead actor Doug Bradley has long since jumped ship.

The Hellraiser series essentially became the horror movie equivalent of the Die Hard sequels, cannibalizing other scripts and ham-fistedly shoving the Cenobites into places they didn’t originally belong like John McClane in an airport. They even show up in space, which despite what us Jason X fans will tell you (there’s dozens of us! DOZENS!) is usually the death knell of a desperate and deflated IP. So it was really no surprise when Hulu announced a reboot for the franchise in 2022.

Admittedly, I didn’t have high hopes. I was never a huge fan of Hellraiser, considering all but the first two films are borderline unwatchable, and that, prior to this year’s Prey,direct-to-streaming installments generally delivered on the same quality as direct-to-DVD. But Prey’s success, as well as the attachment of The Night House director David Bruckner, piqued my interest just enough to give the remake/reboot/reimagining a fair shake.

So how is the new Hellraiser?

Meh.

Bruckner’s entry into the middling franchise takes a page from Fede Álvarez’s 2013 Evil Dead reboot, subbing in the original film’s ruminations on masochism and pleasure in favor of telling an allegorical story about the dangers of addiction. Instead of the innocent Kirsty, her devious stepmother Julia, or the hedonistic, abusive Frank, we instead follow Riley, a recovering drug addict living with her (understandably) overprotective older brother. Her boyfriend convinces her to break into the seemingly abandoned storage warehouse of a reclusive billionaire, where they find a mysterious puzzle box. Naturally, the box hides a sinister secret, and unleashes a violent, religiously-fanatical otherworldly cult upon her and those around her.

While the basic premise, that of an ancient relic that summons interdimensional sadists, remains largely intact, the precise mechanics of the film’s lore differs from the original continuity in several major ways. For one, the Lament puzzle now has several stages that it must go through before its full potential is unlocked. The original Hellraiser presents the cube as simply a beacon for the Cenobites: You solve it, it calls them, they come.

Then they, you know, skin you alive with chains and whatnot.

In this modern retelling, the puzzle box operates more like a sacrificial alter, with each stage requiring a blood sacrifice to advance it to the next phase of the ritual. With each new configuration, the deformed, bizarrely sensual demonic beings enter our world to claim the poor soul whose blood allowed for the transition, mutilating them in typical chains-and-whips fashion. The end goal of this ritual is to claim one of seven prizes, the Cenobites’ ‘gift’ to the brave pioneer of sensation that completed their circuit. Obviously, they operate under fairy tale genie logic, so each gift has hideously painful consequences for the victor. But in their eyes, they bring nothing more than the pleasure of exquisite pain, which is ultimately the core driving force of the beings across the decades that this franchise has been limping along. So it was nice to see that this central theme has remained largely unchanged in this new reimagining.

The Cenobites themselves also look as beautiful and as gruesome as they always have, with a slick, modern update to their primary design aesthetics. Gone is the leather and latex, replaced instead by organic clothing made from each distinct demon’s own flesh. Folds of skin form patchwork robes and dominatrix gear, the sinews and musculature underneath constantly flexing and pulsing as they take each agonizing breath. And while fan-favorites like Chatterer and, of course, Pinhead remain largely unchanged, there are several new additions to the grotesque carnival of creeps that will go down as some of the sickest and most inventive make-up designs in recent memory. The practical effects are exquisite, and I’m sure fans of the original will absolutely adore what the filmmakers have done to bring these classic design choices into the 2020s.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with its perfect monsters, a problem that holds the film back from being truly great and on par with the original. In the ’87 Hellraiser, as I said earlier, the Cenobites, while scary, aren’t the primary antagonists. They’re more like morally ambiguous arbiters of fate, really only serving to reward/punish (to them, it’s all the same) those who have deliberately sought them out by solving their puzzle. Yet here, in the reboot, they operate under fairly standard slasher rules, appearing at random to stalk our doomed young heroes as they stumble through the increasingly nightmarish architecture generated by the box’s reality-altering powers.

This, in and of itself, is a particular highlight of the film. David Bruckner proved in The Night House that he was a master of spatial manipulation to ramp up the scare factor without ever having to explicitly show anything malevolent. And, since architecture played such a huge role in the original series, he was an obvious choice to expand this aspect of the franchise’s lore. In fact, The Night House was originally pitched as a Hellraiser script, so things have come wonderfully full circle for the director. The otherworldly home of the Cenobites, where their god Leviathan lurks, is a claustrophobic, disorienting labyrinth of hallways, tunnels, and stone dungeons that stretch on for eternity. They were unsettling in the original film, but here they’re downright haunting. The final act of the film also takes place concurrently in an elaborate mansion hideaway, where the house has been deliberately designed to play with and alongside the geometry of these supernatural beings. Again, this is Bruckner’s natural habitat, so these scenes are a high point.

But once again, the visual design can’t save the rather aimlessness of the film’s plot and its villains. The Cenobites are used sparingly, and when they’re onscreen, they mostly fall back on silly chase sequences and cliché scene dressings that waste their ghoulish appearance on simple gravitas. The film’s take on the mythology behind their powers and the methods of summoning them to our realm suggest a far more aggressive, sinister direction in comparison to the original film, yet largely relegates them to the background as our main characters amble around and argue with one another. When they are being used, they’re great. I just wish there were more instances of this in the film.

It’s a particular shame and a waste of potential, because Pinhead (or the Priest, as they’re known officially) is phenomenally menacing and oozing with screen presence. Sense8 actress Jamie Clayton has big shoes to fill in stepping into the iconic role, and she absolutely knocked it out of the part. Clive Barker’s original description of the character in the text described them as ethereal and largely androgenous, having been mutilated and ascended to the point where gender is merely a suggestion at this point. The casting of a trans actress here is ingenious, and Clayton’s aura is both utterly perfect for the role as well as being a clever, fresh departure from what we’ve seen before. It’s no question that Pinhead is the star of the franchise, and it’s clear that Bruckner and Clayton made sure to bring their A-game when adapting the role for modern audiences.

Sadly, the rest of the cast doesn’t quite stack up to Clayton’s performance. Our primary protagonists are thin, slasher-movie tropes who don’t really develop as characters beyond their mechanical roles within the film’s narrative. We’re meant to see the film as a meditation on the toxicity of addiction and the caustic effect that it has on a person’s loved ones. Yet the message never comes through clearly enough, as it’s quickly overshadowed by the gore and spectacle of the film’s horror elements by the end of the opening scenes. Mia from The Evil Dead was a convincing, harrowing figure of drug abuse and addiction, her struggle against the sinister forces conjured by the Necronomicon forming an excellent, direct parallel to her mental anguish. Here, it seems to be largely an afterthought.

Like the original Hellraiser, the 2022 update also has a human villain, pulling the strings in the background in an attempt to earn unearthly pleasures from the Cenobites and their all-powerful deified master. Yet unlike the machinations of Frank and Linda, who were the driving forces of antagonism and danger in the ’87 version, their modern counterpart barely makes any splash whatsoever. There’s a version of this film that I can imagine has him cut entirely, and it would make little difference overall to the film’s flow and progression.

Again, visually, Hellraiser is a delight. The sights and sounds are magnificent, and it’s a genuine beauty to behold at times. Yet it’s mostly all flash and flair, with relatively little thematic meat to support the weighty aspirations that it seems to have for itself. To polished and streamlined for its own good, it lacks the grit and grime that made the original feel so dirty and so taboo, which serves to further undermine its primary goal as an exploration of the darker sides to the human experience.

Hellraiser is by no means a bad film. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s probably the second best film to bear the name. Yet, as anyone who’s seen Hellraiser: Bloodlines can tell you, that really doesn’t mean all that much. Check it out if you’re a fan of morbidly gorgeous imagery and macabre architecture, or if you want to see Jamie Clayton’s hauntingly effective turn as the pinheaded priestess. But if none of that tickles your fancy, you won’t be missing much by skipping this one altogether.

Have you seen Hellraiser? Think it has more to offer than I’m giving it credit for? Are you one of the weirdos who actually likes Hellraiser: Inferno? Let me know in the comments!

And, as always, Happy Halloween!

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