Can I be vulnerable? Can I drop a hot take today? Will you hold it against me? Here goes…I don’t really like any of the Hellraiser films. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the work of writer Clive Barker, particularly the novella The Hellbound Heart, of which the Hellraiser franchise is based upon, but the films, even the first two, always fell a little short for me. While the first three are inoffensive enough, not terrible, but lacking the resources to really tap into the wild universe Barker crafted in the novella. There are moments of inspiration, but unfortunately, they’re not always hitting the mark enough to pull it off gracefully. Then, after this trilogy, Hellraiser began to take a an even cheaper, even lazier form in that of direct-to-DVD sequels (actually, Hellraiser IV was released theatrically, but it has the quality of a direct-to-DVD sequel, so I count it). The fifth entry, Hellraiser: Inferno, is a bit of a reprieve since it features the work of a young Scott Derrickson, but unfortunately it still falls victim to many things outside of his directorial control. This continued on for 10 films, including multiple films made only for the sake of The Weinstein Company retaining the rights to the franchise through their Dimension Films brand. Now, with no more Weinstein power holding over the series, the series has reverted to new rights owner Spyglass Media Group (who also inherited the Scream series from the Weinsteins), and a new leaf has been turned in the prospect of finding new life in an old dog.
Riley (Odessa A’zion) is a young adult struggling with addiction. Living with her brother, Matt (Brandon Flynn), his boyfriend, Colin (Adam Faison), and their roommate Nora (Aoife Hinds), Riley struggles with sobriety due to her boyfriend’s, Trevor (Drew Starkey), parallel addiction. When Trevor loops Riley into robbing a shipment crate in an abandoned shipyard, they find only a single safe inside, and within the safe, a small, ornate cube. Disappointed with their findings, Riley keeps the cube, finding hidden mechanisms that, she soon discovers, have opened a portal to another world, a world of angels, demons, perfect pleasure and the most horrific pain, all inflicted by the mutilated Cenobites, headed by a single priest, Pinhead (Jamie Clayton). As Riley and her friends are marked one-by-one, they must find ways to outsmart not just the Cenobites, but outside forces that have vested interests in Riley and her friends failing.
Directed by David Bruckner of The Night House (my favorite film of 2021) fame, Hellraiser is a much more aggressive affair than the Rebecca Hall-led Sundance favorite. What Hellraiser brings from The Night House is its dense, constricting atmosphere, bolstered here by some truly wondrous production design. Shot in Serbia, there is an occasional sense of “Where is this exactly supposed to take place?” element to it all as I’ve been to Massachusetts and don’t recall any place with centuries-old gothic architecture lining moody city streets on a misty night, but the grandiose, cathedral-like aura it gives the film only enhances the mood once you get past the small fallacy of it all. In a film about the monarchy of Hell descending upon an unlucky few from Earth, having the chases lined in gothic streets and grandiose mansions à la Thirteen Ghosts (but if it weren’t a terrible film) just feels correct.
While many fans of the Hellraiser series will always view British actor Doug Bradley as the true Pinhead (a title I would also have bestowed upon him before seeing this film), there is much to be said about Jamie Clayton’s star-making turn as the horror icon. Clayton’s approach to Pinhead is much more accurate to the descriptions initially written by Barker in The Hellbound Heart, appearing as a sexless being, lined with grotesque skin mutilations, and speaking in deceptively calm tones, Clayton brings a quieter, but perhaps more chilling take to the character than seen before. There’s less brute force intimidation at play here, less of a physically imposing presence, and more of a clever creature who simply enforces the sadistic rules that their world imposes on those who seek it out. There’s something inherently more unsettling about a group of horrifically disfigured demons solely carrying out a job than it is those personally hunting you. There’s an absence of emotion, sympathy, or joy in what they do, and while a more bloodthirsty group of Cenobites could make a chase more momentarily intense, the bleakness of this level of violence being perpetrated by those simply doing their job is a more chilling endeavor all-around.
Different from pretty much every other Hellraiser film in the series, this is the first film that actually feels like a studio has given a creative the actual time and money to craft Barker’s world as he described it at the scale of which he described it at. This is no intimate world of a few inflictors of pain, this is entire universes dedicated to the nature of sensation, and the sacrifices one must give to feel the entire spectrum of such sensation. Bruckner understands just how much Hellraiser encompasses, and while he certainly doesn’t attempt to shove everything into one film, there is a blockbuster scale to the effort, one that makes me ask once again in a post-Prey precipice, “Why the hell is Disney making this a Hulu exclusive?” This is a film that’s made for the big screen (*cough*IMAX*cough*) experience, and to be denied that feels like a missing piece to the bigger, cube-shaped, demon-summoning puzzle at hand here.
This, beyond just the stunning visuals, is made even more painful by an absolutely show-stopping score from frequent Bruckner collaborator Ben Lovett. Punctuated with strains of the original Hellraiser score from Christopher Young (which holds up beautifully), there is reverence in innovation with this score. Epic swaths of maddening discord bring another layer of immense beauty to this already successful film, rivaling that of the most grandiose scores for the largest of adult blockbuster films today. There is both a sense of fantasy wonder and sickening dread to this score, and that dichotomy playing out behind some of the most aggressive scenes of violence seen in a studio film in a long time just hits a sweet spot that is rarely touched in my ears.
It’s very ironic that the day after I wrote my Smile review complaining that it’s too damn long at 115 minutes, I got to watch the 122-minute Hellraiser and was finding myself wishing it was even longer. This is a testament to the world in which Bruckner builds in this reboot, and how much more of it I want to see. There’s always a new trick up Bruckner’s sleeve, and Hellraiser never feels repetitive in its structure of scares. There came a point where it became clear that those running the Hellraiser franchise did not respect the intellect of its viewers, despite its central themes and disfigured monsters being inherently the most cerebral of all the iconic ‘80s horror villains, and how refreshing it is to see this story get a new life from someone who clearly reveres and respects the material being built upon, both from Barker’s writings and from the films many love. Don’t get this twisted, this new Hellraiser is no “elevated horror” (I hate that term) reimagining with none of the aggressive nature of the originals, but rather a wondrously mixed hybrid affair that brings smart, clever, and most importantly, well-studied, horror to the unimaginably brutal slasher realm of the Cenobites. There is atmosphere in its buckets of blood, there is paralyzing terror in Clayton’s composed take on Pinhead, and there is a graceful elegance in the grievously grotesque. It’s perhaps my favorite horror film I’ve seen this year for that balance alone.
Final score: 4.5 out of 5.
Available for streaming on Hulu October 7th, 2022.