In a post Saw world, it’s hard to describe how transgressive watching either Hellraiser or Hellbound: Hellraiser II on cable felt as a teen. If you grew up in a religious family like I did, of course the title feels taboo. There’s also the aesthetics of those first two movies. The torture and fashion of the Cenobites, influenced by author Clive Barker’s experience at with S&M clubs, was certainly eye popping. The films were as much ghost stories as they were warped fairy tales. In short, horror just didn’t look like those first two Hellraiser films. Even popping in my copies on blu-ray, there’s something about hearing that particular rattle of chains and the shafts of blue light that still send chills up my spine.
Yet if there were ever a franchise in need of a revival, it would be Hellraiser. Held hostage by the Weinsteins, this concept was left to wither in direct to video purgatory. Now some of those sequels have their defenders. Don’t let me start talking about Hellraiser: Bloodlines. Still the truth is after Bloodlines, the Weinsteins repurposed scripts to be Hellraiser movies to keep the rights. It could be argued a proper Hellraiser film hasn’t been made since the 90s.
Talk of a Hellraiser reboot, including one by Clive Barker, was just talk for years. Finally though, a new Hellraiser just premiered. This film comes courtesy of the team behind last year’s The Night House. It would be easy to say it’s the best Hellraiser film since Hellbound: Hellraiser II given the low bar of other the films. Yet, this is a really good movie on its own merits. Director David Bruckner and writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski get the source material and with the freedom to honor that, get to make a truly chilling film.
Hellraiser starts off like any proper film in this franchise should; a person acquires that damn puzzle box. Bored rich person and occult collector Roland Voight buys the box through a intermediary. He then convinces strangers to solve it for him in an effort to summon an entity called Leviathan. The film then jumps forward six years. The boyfriend of recovering addict Riley convinces her to commit a robbery. She’ll help him break into a warehouse and they can steal supposedly valuable things to sell off later. However they only find a safe with an ornate puzzle box. Riley keeps the box and curious, tries to solve it.
After this point, if you’ve seen any Hellraiser you know what happens. Solving the box summons the Cenobites, entities that blur the line between angel and demon, pleasure and pain. A house will be haunted by its former owner. Deals will be made to evade the Cenobites. Retribution will be paid by someone.
What makes Hellraiser exciting is that it’s clearly made by people who love these films. The film cherry picks ideas and visuals from the first two films but also ideas from Clive Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart, the source of all of this. This gives audiences things you expect and some things you didn’t. I hoped the haunted house atmosphere would return. I certainly didn’t expect to see the Leviathan from Hellraiser II to ever make another appearance. Seeing the Lemarchand Box take on different configurations, something hinted at in the novel, was another pleasant surprise. While labeled a reboot, this film feels only a step removed from its predecessors. If Kirsty Cotten and Tiffany walked past Riley, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Still it’s a better movie that neither they nor any other characters from past Hellraiser films appear. The trend in franchise films at the moment is for them to be both reboots and sequels. Hellraiser though is okay only bringing back the Lemerchand Box and the Cenobites. They’re enough for a film titled Hellraiser.
Let talk about the Cenobites though. The strength of the first two Hellraiser film lies in them establishing these stories as queer cosmic horror. Clive Barker, working in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft (only not racist), created a horrifying new cosmology of strange new deities and their followers. As Doug Bradley’s Hell Priest aka Pinhead says they’re angels to some, demons to others. They’re neither good nor evil. They operate on rules and you can try to bargain with them. The Cenobites clearly exist as a means to an end, leading the unwitting into these terrifying, bloody new realms.
One of the failings of later sequels is treating the Cenobites like generic 80s movie monsters, something Clive Barker actively tried to avoid. In later films, they show up, they kill, and occasionally Pinhead makes jokes. This Hellraiser does a bit of both. Make no mistake, the Cenobites in this are movie monsters. They stalk prey and dispatch them through gory means. Yet once again they are entities that operate on a set of rules. The right barrier can obstruct them. They make deals, even if you don’t like the outcome. They get a makeover that further blurs the lines between angel and demon while giving the airs of a religious role. These genderless entities once carry out their roles in service to higher powers that are clearly neither Heaven nor Hell. It goes hard on the body modification substituting the black vinyl outfits for flayed skin, with muscle showing through. Jamie Clayton’s Priest (aka Pinhead) brings the character back to its roots. This Priest watches proceedings, makes judgements, and spreads their gospel. You can imagine that her character is a new incarnation of the Doug Bradley one. Anytime someone protests, Clayton has the right “Please, you should have known better” energy.
There’s certainly faults to be found. There’s some logic problems like how does someone erect a whole cage around their house or why does the villain wait six years to enact a plan. While the addition of a blood offering to the box has possibilities, it turns the film too much into a slasher. Blood sacrifices are cool but honestly, you now know characters are only in it to get murdered by Cenobites. The film also tries to make Goran Višnjić’s Roland Voight the new Frank Cotton. It’s only a little surprising when he shows up midway through with a grisly modification. The mistake the film makes is Voight should be the monster here, not the Cenobites. What makes the first two Hellraiser films scary is the lengths the villains (Frank, Julia, and Dr. Chinard) go to for their desires. The horror lies in what those desires unleash. Voight though just comes across as a desperate, whiny man. He got what he wanted and now wants to talk to customer service about it. The final fate of his character remains visually stunning but does he truly deserve it?
Despite the flaws, director David Bruckner and writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski craft a Hellraiser worthy of the title. Putting Doug Bradley back in the make up and have an older Kirsty who helps new people with the puzzle box would have been the safe route. I would have still watched it. Instead, the filmmakers elected to make new choices while in a familiar sandbox. The result is a film that’s both creepy, and of course, viscerally gross. Hopefully, this is the start of something new and not something that will get stuck in a horrible limbo.