Clive Barker’s Hellraiser – as a franchise – occupies an interesting space in the 80’s horror canon. The initial entry, directed by Barker himself, is a classic of the grotesque. With its iconic cenobites relegated as background players, it dives deep into humanity’s own efforts to heighten its carnal pleasures, producing one of the most intriguing villains of the genre in “Skinless Frank”. The entire film is a wonder, and was without a doubt the most fascinating post-Nightmare on Elm Street horror effort, thematically, until Candyman debuted. But, unlike so much of its brethren, the Hellraiser franchise stands out for another reason: easily the worst line-up of sequels that, amazingly, just kept coming out. Don’t get me wrong, I think Hellbound is a very enjoyable turn towards Dark Fantasy, but after that? Woof, a hit rate that makes the Halloween sequels look good.
Thus, it goes without saying that a reboot/reimagining of Hellraiser isn’t without some justification. And as far as filmmakers go, you could do worse than David Bruckner, whose The Night House last year was a minor critical favorite. It also showcased his work as one of tremendous visual elan – a necessary ingredient for Pinhead and the gang. While I have misgivings about this kind of thing in general, which I’ll touch on shortly; between a decently interesting filmmaker and Barker signing on as a Producer, it’s hard to not give this new Hellraiser a chance to unveil what sights it has to show.
As it turns out, not so much.
The 2022 take on Pinhead’s puzzle box adventures obtained much of its online ink from the casting of Jamie Clayton as the mysterious villain that wants to tear your soul apart. It’s the kind of casting that certainly grabs your notice, and Clayton is suitably ominous and terrifying in the role. But the material mostly fails her, assuming the most interesting thing about this world is the Cenobites. The humans are deeply unintriguing afterthoughts.
Odessa A’zion, whose character Riley sits at the center of the story, tries her best to make something of this initially David Goyer spawned story. And to be fair, there is something kind of interesting about centering someone dealing with drug addiction issues and playing that off of the typical pleasure-seekers that usually find the lament configuration in their hands. Instead, everything falls apart for poor Riley, despite the best efforts of her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn) and his boyfriend Colin (Adam Faison). Her artist boyfriend (Drew Starkey) provides her with a possible escape route: knowledge of abandoned cargo that could be worth a significant sum. As you can guess, that cargo is a certain puzzle box that makes things far, far worse for everyone involved.
When looking at this new spin on Hellraiser, there are three critical issues that are difficult to get past – perhaps the most critical, is that it’s just so boring. It’s far too long, and just when you feel like it’s got to be wrapping up at some point, you see that there’s still 30 minutes left! A long running time would be okay if what was happening was absorbing, but for whatever reason Bruckner and his collaborators decided to once again turn this into a standard slasher. The film occasionally flirts with life when victims are shunted into near labyrinthian kill spaces that appear out of thin air or as extensions of spaces that the characters are currently occupying – the rare moment of innovation, really. But otherwise, it just plods along, with a “who is going to get accidentally stabbed by the box next?”
For whatever reason, maybe because it’s on a Disney-owned platform, it’s also bizarrely chaste. Sure, there’s a sex scene up front, but afterwards its all murder-death-kill, with none of the inherent horniness that marks so much of the original film (and novel). This sexual core is what differentiates Hellraiser from every other slasher property and gives it so much of its extra hook into the viewer. Without it, it’s just another bland devil bargain story. Even the new Cenobites barely make an impression…there’s Pinhead/The Priest, Chatterer (an old favorite of mine), piercing lady, some other lady…I think that’s it? At least the CD guy from Part 3 was a funny gag.
Though maybe what’s sticking in my craw the most is that this new Hellraiser feels like it’s designed to be fan-service based in the same way the MCU is engineered. A 2-hour long game of “spot the references and easter eggs”, built basically to make longtime fans feel like it’s respectful of the mythology, which apparently replaces the need for quality and depth of storytelling. Again, the filmmakers seem to think the job should be appealing to the crowd that always believed that the Cenobites should be the central area of intrigue instead of the fucked up humans. It’s a direction to go, I guess.
Frankly, I’ve long-held that these horror efforts that had their heyday in the 80’s and early 90’s are so of a time and place, and a product of that era, that to revisit any of them feels ill-fitting. As we’ve seen with revisitations of our old friends Freddy, Jason, Candyman, and now Pinhead, sometimes it’s better to leave these things in the past.