While I’m a big fan of Clive Barker’s fiction and have read most of his stuff, I find that most film adaptations of his work fall far short of of the fantastical grotesqueries presented in his prose. 1992’s Candyman and 2008’s The Midnight Meat Train were rare exceptions to that, as was 1987’s excellent Hellraiser, directed by Barker himself, and based off his 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart.
Now, while I love the first Hellraiser movie (and Hellraiser II: Hellbound is pretty damn good too), I never got into it as a franchise, and from everything I’ve heard, I was probably wise not to. The original Hellraiser got nine (!!!) sequels, many of which were made with the sole purpose of retaining the rights to the original IP. Hell, I think after 1996’s Bloodline, the movies weren’t even originally written as Hellraiser movies anymore; the production company would just take a random horror script that was lying around, wedge Pinhead in there, and call it a day. The most recent Hellraiser sequels, in fact—2011’s Revelations and 2018’s Judgment—didn’t even feature the awesome Doug Bradley in his defining role.
So what I’m trying to say is that the Hellraiser franchise has been ailing for quite a while, and seemed ripe for a reimagining. Clive Barker had apparently been thinking about a remake of the original film as early as 2006, but for various reasons, nothing concrete really happened with it until 2019, when Spyglass Media Group got screenwriter/producer David S. Goyer on board (who is well-known for scripting several superhero films as well as writing both the Blade trilogy and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy). Working from a script by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (the team who wrote the excellent films Super Dark Times and The Night House), director David Bruckner (The Signal, The Ritual, The Night House) was at last able to bring a new Hellraiser to Hulu in 2022.
So is it any good? Surprisingly, yes; I liked it quite a bit, and it was much better than I was expecting. Though I’ve seen some reviews of it that refer to it as a remake or another adaptation of the novella, that is not accurate; this new Hellraiser doesn’t follow any of the characters or plot beats from The Hellbound Heart or the 1987 movie. This film, presumably like some of the sequels did, simply follows a different set of characters who stumble across the iconic Lemarchand Configuration. That’s actually one of the best things about that puzzle box conceit, as a matter of fact: the box is out there in the world somewhere, and new people are always either finding it or seeking it out deliberately.
While this movie goes lighter on the sadomasochistic angle—understandably, as that imagery isn’t nearly as shocking or transgressive as it was in 1987—it does have relatable characters with some depth to them, really cool updated Cenobite looks, and some pretty rad and gruesome body horror.
After an extended prologue involving a depraved billionaire named Roland Voight (Goran Višnjić) and his interactions with the puzzle box, we get into the main part of the story. Our protagonist is Riley, played by Odessa A’zion. She’s a recovering addict, living in an apartment with her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn), Matt’s boyfriend Colin (Adam Faison), and their roommate Nora (Aoife Hinds). Riley’s also been seeing a guy named Trevor (Drew Starkey), who Matt has a bad feeling about, not least because Riley met him in her 12-step program and is in danger of relapsing with him around.
Riley insists Trevor is a good guy, though, and resents her brother’s interference in her life. I have to say that Odessa A’zion absolutely kills it in this role; in the context of the story and all of her addiction baggage, it would be very easy for her to come off as unlikeable, but it’s actually quite the opposite. Sure, Riley is fucked up and has some major issues, but she’s still endearing and sympathetic (or at least I found her so), and that’s a testament to the actor’s genuine and natural performance.
Trevor convinces Riley to make some extra cash by breaking into a large storage container that he insists has been abandoned for some time. He apparently used to work at the shipping yard where the container is stored, he says, and all the shipments that came in were chock full of expensive objects purchased abroad by the wealthiest of the wealthy. Long story short, they break into the massive container, which holds only a small safe. Busting into the safe puts the fated Lemarchand Configuration into their clueless hands. Trevor shrugs and says it must be worth something, telling Riley to hang onto it until he can negotiate a price from one of his contacts.
Riley, meanwhile, falls off the wagon, causing a blistering argument with her brother, after which he kicks her out of the apartment. Completely fucked up on booze and pills, she inadvertently makes the puzzle box move into one of its other configurations, and freaks out as she gets her first glance of the Cenobites. Because she’s so wasted, however, she isn’t entirely sure that what she’s seeing is real, and what’s worse, when she tries to tell her friends about it, they think it’s all the drugs talking too.
Not long after this, though, the reality of the situation becomes all too evident after Riley’s brother Matt is taken by the Cenobites, and Riley embarks on a frantic journey of discovery as she tries to figure out where the box came from and what it does, hoping she can use the knowledge to bring her brother back from whatever Hell dimension he was sucked into.
As I said, this is more its own story taking place inside the Hellraiser universe, rather than a direct adaptation of the novella or remake of the 1987 film. So don’t go into it expecting that same plot again. Honestly, I think this was absolutely the best approach for updating the franchise, as the mythology surrounding the puzzle box and the Cenobites is complex enough to encompass lots of new stories within its framework. The connection here too between Riley’s struggles with addiction and the obsessive sensation-seeking of those who covet the box is well-done and not at all heavy-handed, though the metaphor is there if you want to explore it.
I’d also like to give a particular shout-out to Jamie Clayton, the new iteration of Pinhead (here just called the Hell Priest, more in keeping with the spirit of the source material, which never referred to the character by the Pinhead nickname). She wisely chose not to try to fill Doug Bradley’s substantial shoes, and instead puts her own spin on the character, making the demon more aloof, alien, and otherworldly, to fine effect. The other Cenobites look pretty cool too, and I like that the creature designs essentially have the Cenobites “wearing” outfits made out of their own skin and viscera, rather than having them dressed in leather and vinyl bondage gear, as in the 1987 film.
The only minor criticisms I have of the film are its length (at 121 minutes, it’s maybe a touch too long, though I never felt like it dragged) and the fact that the side characters are a tad underdeveloped, but neither of those nitpicks were really dealbreakers for me. In addition, this Hellraiser is much slicker than its seedy 80s counterpart, but that didn’t bother me all that much either; as I mentioned, the cultural context in which the original came out has changed so much that the same qualities that made the 1987 movie so boundary-pushing wouldn’t play the same way today. Though the 2022 Hellraiser isn’t brilliant, I found it a compelling and respectful entry into the franchise that breathed new life into the concept, and had some memorable imagery and some delightfully creative gore, to boot.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.