Back when the endorsement of Stephen King really meant something (seriously, we all love Big Steve but he does tend to toss recommendations around like confetti), many horror fans were introduced to the next big thing by way of the trailer to the 1987 movie Hellraiser. Check it out:
Isn’t that great? The slightly raspy tone in the narrator’s voice; the big, stark lettering of the quote onscreen; the toll of the bell when King’s name appears – all combine to express without question that this relatively unknown UK author and first-time filmmaker, this Clive Barker person, truly was ‘the future of horror’.
The hype was not inaccurate, but Barker didn’t become one of the premier figures of modern horror and fantasy solely because of savvy marketing. Hellraiser made it clear that his was a distinctive voice, uninhibited and unflinching whether it came to depictions of extreme violence, be it physical, psychological or emotional.
Because for every gory, grotesque moment in the film, there’s another that cuts just as deeply in presenting a marriage with a rotten core of deceit and dissatisfaction, a desire for pleasure that can never be sated, or a sad longing for connection that ends suddenly and brutally with a hammer blow to the head.
Taking all that into account, it’s almost amazing that it was a hit, let alone one that spawned nine sequels (one of them, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, is good, the rest are several shades of so-so).
But the mythology of Hellraiser – the otherworldly Cenobites, ‘explorers in the further reaches of experience’, offer a disturbing mix of pleasure and pain (mostly pain, one surmises) to anyone foolhardy or unfortunate enough to open an ancient puzzle box – is a captivating one, and one that deserves better than the cheap sequels that followed in the original’s wake.
The new incarnation of Hellraiser, currently streaming on Binge, and directed by David Bruckner (who has a couple of very well-regarded chillers in The Ritual and The Night House to his credit), cherry-picks a few elements from the original saga: the puzzle box is back, as are the Cenobites, and the film does an admirable job of fleshing out the backstory while keeping some aspects mysterious and opaque.
Whereas the original Hellraiser at times wrapped its tale of domestic disharmony in the feverish, perverse logic (or non-logic) of a nightmare, the 2022 version plays more like a mystery or procedural, with its drug-addicted protagonist Riley (Odessa A’zion) desperately trying to uncover the secrets of the puzzle box she illegally obtained and unwittingly opened.
Riley and her boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey) pinched the puzzle box from the vault of Voight (Goran Visnjic), a predatory, Epstein-ish billionaire with a penchant for the occult, but when she accidentally solves the first of its six stages the Cenobites appear, demanding human sacrifices at each stage of the puzzle’s completion, at which time the holder of the box will be granted a wish by the hellish entity Leviathan.
With Riley’s brother Matt the first one claimed by the Cenobites, she is determined to resurrect him by completing the puzzle. Who, however, is she willing to sacrifice?
Hellraiser is far from a disappointment – that should be made clear. But any movie that borrows the title, mythology and iconography of something that burrowed its way under the skin and into the consciousness of the culture is inevitably going to be judged by that criterion.
And as it’s poor form to criticise a film based on what it’s not rather than what it is, let’s say from the outset that this is rich in atmosphere and characterisation. Bruckner has an aptitude for creating dread, and the cast of victims (led by the capable and charismatic A’zion, the daughter of Better Things creator/star Pamela Adlon) are convincingly rattled by their plight.
(That said, Hellraiser is dominated by actor Jamie Clayton as the leader of the Cenobites, called the Priest – Clayton lowers the temperature in the room simply by entering a scene, her voice and bearing icy, imperious, seductive and contemptuous all at once.)
And the scripting by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski gives the story a solid, straightforward sense of structure, as well as understandable motivations for actions and reactions. It’s an intelligent, well-crafted piece of work.
But all this solid work on both sides of the camera also gives one the feeling the edges of Hellraiser have been filed smooth. There’s nothing jagged here that will leave a mark on your psyche, as the original and its immediate sequel may.
This 2022 incarnation is impressive in many ways, progressive in many ways. But transgressive it isn’t, and while it didn’t necessarily need to be, a willingness to wade into murkier waters may have helped it truly earn the title Hellraiser.
Hellraiser is currently streaming Binge.