We’ve been threatened with a Hellraiser reboot for a good decade and change, attracting a rotating roster of talent with series creator Clive Barker dropping in and out like a side character waving from the bushes. In that time, Dimension Films kindly whet appetites and fulfilled contractual obligations with direct-to-video entries Hellraiser: Revelations in 2011 and 2018’s Hellraiser: Judgment — I have not seen either film, by all accounts they make approximately zero case for continuing the franchise and I should probably never bother. Lo and behold, we finally have this fabled entity before us — Hellraiser, a Hulu Original. Not only does it come with Barker’s blessing, it’s from director David Bruckner, who most recently made the technically competent yet narratively thin horrors The Night House (with which Hellraiser ’22 shares writers) and The Ritual. Still, it’s from people who are, you know, established, hence my cautious optimism going in. Hellraiser‘s a fickle beast after all; the bar’s so low one wonders why it keeps kicking, also so low it should be breezy for competent people to make a relatively impressive entry.
And wouldn’t you know it, “technically competent yet narratively thin” perfectly encapsulates Hellraiser ’22. We follow Riley (Odessa A’zion), living with her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn) and his partner Colin (Adam Faison), struggling with drug addiction, not helped by her relationship with dealer Trevor (Drew Starkey), who hopes to make big bucks heisting an incoming shipment. Riley follows along, her and Trevor discover this shipment is just a fancy puzzle box — they’re confused, we of course know what to expect. Riley opens it after a confrontation with her brother, he ends up getting taken by the demonic Cenobites, led by Pinhead (Jamie Clayton, credited as “The Priest” since Clive Barker hates the Pinhead moniker, but let’s call a spade a spade), and now Riley feels an onus to discover what happened to her brother and find him.
To note, Riley’s brother is taken because the puzzle box — otherwise known as the Lemarchand Configuration in prior canon — is a clever and feisty little thing now, such that if one opens it a particular way a blade will jut out, and if you’re unfortunate enough to get lanced by it you’re marked for a visit by the Cenobites. This is where Hellraiser ’22 establishes itself as an underwhelming, perhaps even actively misguided affair. Bruckner and friends put much weight into creating a whole new Hellraiser cosmology, for reasons I’m not certain other than a probable need to justify the film’s existence in some way (which is funny considering, again, the remarkably low bar this franchise has).
This cosmology relies very much on gimmicky ‘rules’ to guide it, and the movie spends very much of its time having characters lay these rules out for us. These are not innovative or interesting rules, mind. They make the Hellraiser universe and the Cenobites in particular less interesting, eschewing the skewed morality the Cenobites operated on and instead relegating them to slasher mechanics. They’re more generic as antagonists, less special. As Pinhead, then played by Doug Bradley, in Hellbound: Hellraiser II once said, “It is not hands that call us. It is desire.” Whereas this new Hellraiser counters with, “It is not desire that calls us. It is a knife in a puzzle box you can stab people with. So hands, I guess.“
This fumbling extends to the film’s theme of addiction, something it’s eager to remind you until it’s unceremoniously pushed aside once the plot revs into gear, ending up more as window dressing for Riley versus a pertinent (and novel!) thoroughfare to the franchise’s central themes of desire and its consequences. Really a shame, as addiction is as good a conceit as any to wrap a Hellraiser around — I’m imagining some gory Requiem for a Dream hybrid and feel slightly more robbed with each passing moment. What we end up getting is something, at the risk of sounding like a pompous asshole, rather pedestrian in tone and execution, taking away the tonal mishmash of psychosexual drama and black comedy that made the first two Hellraiser movies so indulgent beyond their body horror. There’s nothing here that matches the absurdity of a woman tenderly dancing with the corpse of her husband’s brother.
On the level of body horror, Hellraiser ’22 bizarrely cockteases much of it even though everyone and their mom’s aware of what’s going to happen, then more bizarrely reserves its most gruesome scene for the most inconsequential side character. What we do get is satisfyingly disgusting, so it’s quite a choice for this movie to act like it’s above giving in to gore.
When Bruckner and friends pull elements from Hellbound in the third act it’s a nice touch, and I think overall it conjures some entertaining momentum despite nearly buckling from the weight of its increasingly convoluted narrative, including a twist so artless I can’t fathom why anyone bothered. The ending’s botched, opting for the ‘clever’ conclusion over the satisfying and thematically sensible one — in a nutshell, Riley has the option from the Cenobites to have her brother resurrected, but her brief encounter with a character just minutes ago had her learn (also artlessly) that the Cenobites are liars and their “gifts” are anything but, ergo she declines, the Cenobites scoff, then they let Riley go on her merry way. Not only does this rip away the potential for a corpse to be resurrected ala the original Hellraiser movies and therefore the easiest possible sequel hook, which I’m sure was intentional on the filmmakers’ part (the whole “subverting expectations” thing and all that), it leaves our characters with nothing except the knowledge that a number of people died for, in retrospect, no good goddamn reason, and no reckoning except lives of probable crippling depression. Fantastic.
Anyway, I’ve been lamenting enough. Credit to cinematographer Eli Born, he shot this movie well — the imagery’s crisp and plays with shadows very nicely. The Cenobites are often framed such that their presence is inherently unsettling, presented as silhouettes in foggy or otherwise obscure distances, either slowly approaching or remaining still — they feel inevitable. The Cenobites themselves look phenomenal, their costuming and general designs more intricate than they’ve ever been, and Clayton really makes the Pinhead character her own, encompassing its genderless otherness ala Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart. Every time she’s on screen the film hums. The callbacks to Christopher Young’s original scores work wonderfully, especially in conjunction with the aforementioned returning elements from Hellbound: Hellraiser II. A’zion clearly has chops and I think would’ve done wonders with a more nuanced and fleshed out protagonist.
All told, Hellraiser ’22 isn’t a bad watch, though being the #3 film in the franchise (behind the first two, unless Revelations and Judgment are somehow secret gems and I’ve been unduly deprived) seemed like a simple achievement, and I was surprised at how much this movie made that task difficult for itself.