A drug addict opens a doorway to a world of supernatural suffering In David Bruckner’s Hellraiser.
The Hellraiser franchise has been considerably hit and miss over the years, each subsequent instalment generally adhering to the law of diminishing returns. However, this attempt at a reboot is a huge step in the right direction. Although it follows the convention of some legacy sequels that take the same title as the original and often ignore any movies in between – such as 2018’s Halloween or this year’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre – this one simply being called Hellraiser is to signal a new beginning rather than following previous movies’ events, as admittedly disparate as they were.
The film assumes no familiarity with the series, allowing newcomers on the same ride as long-time fans, and rather than attempting to merely remake the original it instead crafts its own story while also invoking established lore. The plot centres on Riley (Odessa A’zion), a recovering junkie staying with her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn), his boyfriend Colin (Adam Faison) and their flatmate Nora (Aoife Hinds). Her sketchy boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey) convinces her to help him break into an abandoned warehouse, where they find an intricate puzzle box that causes her and her friends to be hounded by sadistic creatures.
In the previous movies, the box was typically just a plot device to summon the monstrous Cenobites, but here its presence drives the story. Unlike other luckless protagonists who had to do little more than twist the box after running their thumb around a circle, the design of this one is far more elaborate, possessing so many catches, swivels, buttons and facets that it genuinely looks like something you could fiddle with for hours and get nowhere, like the world’s most dangerous fidget spinner. Each completed configuration demands a sacrifice to be marked by a blade that pops out until the box’s final form is unlocked, which affords the story its pacing. A set number of stages and seemingly inflexible rules regarding how each is progressed gives the viewer a sense of structure even with the characters largely remaining in the dark about exactly what’s going on, as well as building events towards a conclusion. Even after taking the time to establish such new ideas the film still manages to put a spin on them, keeping you guessing as to how things might ultimately be resolved, even with a group of seemingly unstoppable creatures hounding the characters’ every step.
Director David Bruckner creates the same sense of oppressive dread that characterised his previous films The Ritual and The Night House, each passing moment heightening the tension as a realm of otherworldly terror is gradually opened up. The core of the horror comes from the reimagined Cenobites, each of whom is a repellent yet mesmerising creation. If they were simply full-on monsters it would be easier to handle, but their appearances are made so much worse by being recognisably human enough to convince as creatures that were once people. Diving into the uncanny valley via tortured mutilation, they are flayed parodies of humanity contorted in sadomasochistic bondage, moving with the grace of dancers and the menace of demons, inscrutable of motive and devoid of empathy.
Despite all this, it wouldn’t be Hellraiser without Pinhead, and although describing such a performance as the best since Doug Bradley is a pretty low bar, it’s nevertheless an objective fact. Jamie Clayton (Sense8) proves herself a worthy successor by fully making the role her own, periodically slinking from the shadows to remind us of the relentless force that has been unleashed, seemingly more interested in watching how her quarry reacts to each new threat than actually catching them. Like a warped invocation of the snake of Eden, her husky voice whispers seductions and rasps threats, each as much a promise as the other as the fear she induces heightens the temptation she offers. A further distinction is made by crediting the character as Hell Priest, tacitly referencing the expansion Pinhead received in various comics and series creator Clive Barker’s 2015 novel The Scarlet Gospels.
The mistake of giving too much focus to the monsters rather than the human protagonists is an easy trap for horror movies to fall into, but Hellraiser avoids the pitfall by using the Cenobites sparingly and instead grounding the story in Riley’s perspective. Her struggle to survive against forces she cannot comprehend becomes increasingly desperate, while her guilt at the death and destruction she has accidentally released upon the world is clear in her every action. Although the film largely disregards the potential for her addiction to make her question what she’s seeing and experiencing, it nevertheless remains an experience unknowably sinister and hypnotically repulsive.
Hellraiser is a relentlessly tense and increasingly chilling thrill ride, anchored around engaging lead performances along with welcome additions to series lore. It stands beside the best of the saga and excels as a standalone entry while also setting itself up for continuation.
- the accessibility for new viewers
- the more elaborate puzzle box
- Jamie Clayton’s seductive malevolence as the Hell Priest
- the reimagined Cenobites
- the focus on the human characters
- the relentless tension
- Riley’s addiction not being used to its full potential
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