Growing up, I was introduced to Hellraiser without actually knowing what Hellraiser was. Any of us growing up during the era of video stores (RIP) will remember that feeling of walking down the aisles in the store, and “accidentally” finding ourselves in the horror section. On the Hellraiser VHS that I remember, Doug Bradley’s terrifying face, with his teeth bared into a scowl, with pins covering all over his stark white head, made me nervous. It also planted the seed of curiosity inside my brain about what horror could be.
I read “The Hellbound Heart” as a teenager, but it wouldn’t be until I hit my late 20s that I finally watched the films, and I understood the fandom around it. With the many sequels that followed the Clive Barker original, the decline in quality was noticeable, and the growing understanding of what was at stake for fans slid into place when recalling the announcement that a reimagining was being tackled. How exactly does one reimagine Hellraiser to capture the essence of its predecessors while also adding a fresh spin to it? You snag the team behind The Night House, apparently.
Reuniting Director David Bruckner, Screenwriters Ben Collins & Luke Piotrowski, Writer/Producer David S. Goyer and Producer Keith Levine together with Clive Barker’s influence, the team broaden the scope of the story to cover addiction in its various forms. Building tension and suspense in its first half, they plunge us headfirst into the darkness of its second half.
A twist of fate
In an opening sequence that is reminiscent of both the novella and the originating film, we see an item picked up in secrecy before the scene transitions to a swanky mansion. Reveling in bacchanal shenanigans, the guests don’t know an unsuspecting man sneaking away.
Directed towards an incredibly sus-looking room, he is drawn to a mysterious box in the middle of the room. The mansion’s owner, Mr. Voight (Goran Višnjić) lures the man into solving the puzzle of the box. Once solved, something gets triggered that stabs him. As audiences will come to know, this is all that is needed to seal someone’s fate and tie them to the realm of the Cenobites for eternity.
We jump forward in time where we meet Riley (Odessa A’zion), along with her boyfriend (Drew Starkey), who are both working on their sobriety. We see how Riley trades one addiction with another, craving tactile experiences as she struggles with her day-to-day life. One night, her boyfriend convinces her to break into a storage unit, which is a bad idea regardless of horror, whereupon they discover a mysterious box. They decide to take it and try to sell it.
After a bad argument with her brother (Brandon Flynn), Riley consumes drugs and is lured by the box into solving the puzzle. However, things don’t go as planned and, instead of Riley being taken by the Cenobites, her brother is. Seeking answers, we follow Riley as she tries to solve the box’s mystery.
For fans familiar with Hellraiser, this iteration does take its time in building up the story and putting all the pieces into place, which can frustrate. That said, the team shows great reverence for the groundwork Barker has laid out for them. For newbies to this universe, Bruckner and co. lay down the rules of the game and the universe so that you don’t have to binge the entire franchise to get up to speed. That said, there is an undercurrent of tension that is bubbling under the surface, increasing in strength as HELLRAISER (2022) continues on, and this is the proper hook needed to keep us watching.
With time, the transition from our world into the world of the Cenobites blurs, and it is through being exposed to the Cenobites that audiences will tremble. The practicality and execution of the transitions from our world to the next are seamless. The cooler colors utilized in these moments create a stark visual contrast. When the victims (and subsequently us) come face to face with the wide variety of Cenobites, we are transfixed by the macabre beauty that they’ve been transformed into, especially whilst in the labyrinth of a mansion.
Then, we meet the Hell Priest aka Pinhead. There was some unnecessary drama online about Jamie Clayton’s casting as the Hell Priest, and it was incredibly unnecessary. Clayton’s performance will shut the mouths of naysayers. Giving her own spin on the gender ambiguous hell demon, from the posture to the cadence of her voice as she speaks, you will be enthralled into feeling a heavy array of awe and danger, and you’ll like it.
The bigger picture
The decision to pull back on sex is easily noticeable in HELLRAISER (2022). While the Cenobites and their design still lean into that BDSM sensibility, what sex is in the film is kept short and sweet. Bruckner is on record saying that while they pulled from the connective tissue of the original film and its utilization of sex, their story focus was more on the broader theme of addiction and all that it encompasses. If you’re a Hellraiser fan coming into this expected sex and violence levels of the original, you may feel disappointed.
That said, the expansion to focus on addiction as a whole and its various disguises is an intriguing one. How it is delivered in HELLRAISER (2022) and how we see the impact of Riley’s decisions with the box as the conduit wields a hefty impact. At the end of the day, addiction is connected to the stimulation of the senses. Sensory-driven pursuits. Whether it’s in pursuit of feeling good, numb, feeling pain, power, pleasure, etc., there is a connection between all these various pursuits. And, when taken too far, it can transform into something completely out of our hands.
All of this comes together with Odessa A’zion’s performance as Riley. A character that some may find completely irredeemable, her struggles feel relatable. The decisions she arrives at in the film will challenge people but, when push comes to shove, you can feel the earnestness with which she seeks to find her brother.
Final Thoughts on HELLRAISER (2022)
Beautiful. Visceral. Uneasy. Cruel. So many words can be used to describe this new take on HELLRAISER (2022). Its grasp of addiction in its various forms is well-done, and the team is unafraid to explore the multi-faceted complexities and ugliness that can erupt in recovery. There could have been a slight push to add more blood, more sex, the things that originally drew viewers into the realm of the Hellraiser franchise. But, as it stands now, the balance between the more perverse and finding stability in HELLRAISER (2022) suits the tone of what’s delivered here.
Those at Fantastic Fest were able to see HELLRAISER (2022) on the big screen. While I was not one of those lucky viewers, if Disney decides to drop this in theaters even for a limited weekend run, I’d push people to see it that way. Take in every exquisite detail. This film is indeed quite beautiful to behold, and if anyone takes away anything from this at all, it’s the lasting impact of the images presented onscreen. In the meantime, don’t pick up any strange boxes, okay? No matter how alluring they try to be when you look at it.
HELLRAISER is streaming exclusively on Hulu starting October 7th. Get ready for the sights that await you.
All images courtesy of Spyglass Media Group.