There seems to be a specific trajectory to nearly every classic horror franchise. The first films tend to be excellent or at least pretty good, but as the series goes on, the returns continue to diminish until it’s time roll the dice on a reboot. The Hellraiser franchise is no different. The first two films are excellent, and they make up one of my favorite horror films of all time, since I see it as two parts of the same story à la Kill Bill. The third and fourth film are not awful, but the series takes a sharp decline after that, losing the depth, mystery, and seductive religiosity that Clive Barker intended the series to have. The idea of a Hellraiser reboot seemed like a risky proposition given the series’ descent into the straight-to-video bin, but David Bruckner’s retelling of the story is a remarkably adept and welcome surprise.
A recovering addict named Riley (Odessa A’zion) comes into possession of a mysterious puzzle box called the Lament Configuration that when solved summons into our reality creatures called the Cenobites. These horrific, otherworldly beings are led by the quietly commanding Priest (Jamie Clayton) and feed on the desires and suffering of humans. Riley must uncover the secrets of the box before the world around her and the people in it all become prey for the Cenobites’ depraved appetites.
Right from the opening scenes, this new Hellraiser grabs you by the heart, especially if you’re already familiar with the series. Set six years prior to Riley’s story, we see someone trying to shift the Configuration around, unaware of its nature. As the gears inside the thing slowly turn, the tension mounts. Once it’s done we hear chains off camera, and we know exactly what’s coming. In fact, we fear it and crave it in equal measures. With a slow, deliberate pace, Bruckner gradually dials up the tension until it has you by the throat.
From the beginning, it’s clear that Bruckner and his usual script collaborators Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski are fully aware of the layers and depth that were part of Clive Barker’s original story and film. This is not a slasher film. This isn’t torture porn. This is an examination of the human condition soaked in blood and metal (but mostly blood…and lots of it). It’s equal parts visceral horror show and dramatic, shadowy metaphor.
Bruckner and his writers use the Configuration and the Cenobites as an analog for addiction and recovery. Not just the need for sensation but also of the ripple effects it has on the people surrounding the addict. People seek out the Configuration for pleasure, for power, and for knowledge, but it only bestows its gifts after blood is shed and lives are sacrificed. What does it cost to feed the addiction? What lengths will a person go to to get what they think they need?
Riley may have found the box, but she can’t contain it, and its power is slowly destroying everything she knows regardless of what she does with the box itself. Once the process starts, it’s impossible to go back to the beginning. Every step of the way changes reality permanently, even if it’s just the perception of that reality that changes. And the Cenobites are not only counting on this; they savor every single second of pain and suffering it brings.
The Cenobites themselves have always been the highlight of the series, a grotesque dramatis personae that runs on demented creativity. The creatures here do not disappoint in the slightest. The designs for each one are unique but together a cohesive whole. The make up and prosthetic work on each is beyond reproach, with many of them referencing past Cenobites but elevating the concepts. The Gasp (played perfectly by Selina Lo) echoes Angelique from Hellraiser: Bloodline in her design, but the details are far more exquisite and morbidly fascinating.
In fact, Bruckner and company have done a great deal to pay homage to the previous films and the original story without resorting to fan service or shutting out the uninitiated. Elements from the first two films have been remixed and remade into their own story that never sacrifices Barker’s themes or modalities. From the effective and efficient script to Ben Lovett’s ominous score, there are shadows of the past to be found here, with things only repeated verbatim when absolutely appropriate. When Christopher Young’s original theme plays during the climax or when the Priest says “We have such sights to show you,” it’s electric.
As for the Priest itself, Jamie Clayton is perfection. While Doug Bradley is rightfully an icon of horror for his portrayals of the Priest/Pinhead in the past, Clayton boldly makes this character her own. In the original novella, the Priest is described as an androgynous being with a feminine voice, making Clayton’s portrayal more accurate to the source material. While she might occasionally reference Bradley’s performance, she stakes her claim to the role with ease. She is utterly terrifying in the most calm and rational of ways, her modulated voice never rising above an unsettling, stoic calm.
Sadly, the Priest doesn’t show up until over one hour into the film, leaving us in the care of our mortal characters. But for the most part, this isn’t a bad thing. While not everyone gets much to do or much backstory, they all feel like people and not just meat for the beast. There’s a level of quality that nobody slips under, and Odessa A’izon herself is an excellent lead. She has a good grasp on Riley’s vulnerability and emotions; there are times she’s as emotionally flayed open as a Cenobite’s flesh. It also helps that she bears a resemblance (at least in styling if not character) to Ashley Laurence’s Kirsty Cotton from the first two films.
There’s really very little I can say that this new film does wrong. It perfectly captures the metaphysical heart of Barker’s story and film while also forging its own path. Fascinating and hypnotic, dangerous and seductive, this is exactly what Hellraiser is supposed to be. There’s no pain here, only pleasure.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / A-
Hellraiser can be streamed exclusively on Hulu.