While it’s something of an overused statement to declare remakes or reboots as usually acts of art-adjacent corporate greed, even the most cynical horror fan would most likely agree that the Hellraiser franchise has been desperately screaming for a shiny new update for the last thirty years.
While virtually ever other member of the horror icon club has been furnished with at least one, big budget re-imagining (fuck, even the miner from My Bloody Valentine got one), Pinhead and his infernal partners in pain have been spiralling down the drain of direct to DVD dreck ever since the fifth entry made its noticably cheap bow. Decades of second hand scripts and budgets flayed to the bone had left the franchise as sliced up and drained as one of the Cenobites victims, but now may be a great time to give praise to Leviathan: the god of hell, as that classy revamp the Hellraiser franchise has been gasping for has finally arrived. But, does it have such sights to show us, or does it simply tear our soul apart?
We are reintroduced to that infamous, demon calling puzzle box (courtesy of a legitimately nifty new redesign) as it resides in the residence of middle-aged Christian Grey-esque, millionaire hedonist, Roland Voight who is convincing a sex worker to solve it in order to gain a terrible gift from the demonic Cenobites it summons.
However, six years later, we are introduced to recovering addict Riley McKendry, who, through her red flag boyfriend, Trevor, is convinced to break into a storage warehouse in order to steal some juicy items, but all they find is that damn puzzle box. As a result, Riley’s overprotective brother, Matt, tries to interject himself, thinking that his sister has gone back to using again, but after deeply cutting himself on a blade that’s protruding from the puzzle box, he’s violently dispatched by a familiar supernatural force that’s awfully fond of using hooks and chains. Approached by Hell’s perverted and mutilated version of a Make A Wish Foundation – the Cenobites – Riley is informed by the pin headed Hell Priest that she has been marked by the box and she has to offer up new victims for every new stage of the puzzle box that is completed or be claimed herself.
Teaming up with Trevor, Matt’s boyfriend Colin and their roommate Nora (coincidentally the same amount of people needed by the Cenobites), Riley races to uncover the secrets of the puzzle box before Pinhead loses whatever patience a semi-flayed, demon-perv could possibly have and sics her fellow demons on this motley group of millennials who have no idea what bizarre, faustian pact they’ve found themselves in the middle of.
As a long term Hellraiser fan, I have to admit that this new swing at Clive Barker’s classic is admittedly more of a relief than a triumph, reestablishing and strengthening the lore instead of running with it, but compared with some of the shit long suffering fans have had to tolerate, it is nice to have any pleasure compared to the endless pain we’ve had to endure. David Bruckner, director of last years intriguing The Night House and the criminally underrated The Ritual, is a genuinely inspired choice to give the franchise the burst of revitalising new blood it desired just as much as the original movie’s Uncle Frank, however he’s slightly hamstrung by the film’s script that leaves the first half feeling a little overfamilar.
The main issue is chiefly the human characters who regrettably mostly fall into the “dumb horror youth” category that spend most of the running time bickering and doing exactly the sort of idiotic stuff that keeps the plot lurching along. Having the main character be a reformed addict may make sense (who worse to tangle with pleasure demons than someone with precious little will power when faced with creatures who trade in diabolical temptations), but it was already a trick already played by the Evil Dead remake, but aside from that, good guys are nowhere near a match for the tribulations faced by the Cotton family back in ’87.
However, while the mechanics of the other often veer worryingly into slasher territory, the style that Bruckner brings to events give Hellrasier a stylish sheen it hasn’t enjoyed since the 90’s and despite the awkwardness of the plot, the choice not to adapt the original movie wholesale is a wise one – especially once we turn the corner into the second half and things finally get extra Hellrasier-y.
Leaning more into Barker’s original novella, The Hellbound Heart, where this newest trip to Hell works best is when it takes the seductive lore of the franchise and reinforces it back to its former glory. The puzzle box – now feeling like more of an actual character than just a malevolent maguffin – now looks splendid, clicking and shifting into more shapes than ever and a similar trick has been worked on the Cenobites themselves, who look more like grotesquely gorgeous than ever with their elegant and intricate designs. While she’s slightly missing the innate regal nature of Doug Bradley’s Pinhead V.1, Jaime Clayton still gives the Lead Cenobite its groove back, sporting natty pearl tips to those copious head pins and boasting a voice so raspy it makes the demon from The Exorcist sound like Betty Boop. Likewise, her misshapen cohorts (which include snazzy updates of the Chatterer and the Female) are far more impressive than anything the franchise has given us in years and the final act, that takes place in a house that has a few infernal secrets of it’s own, feels like the most purely Clive Barker-type set up I’ve seen in ages – even more so than last years Candyman (although Nia DaCosta’s film is still superior).
Thanks to that early string of storytelling issues preventsing this Hellraiser redux being all it could have been, there is a slight worry that all my glowing words may be born of the fact that we actually have a Hellraiser movie that’s been made with care and respect – but the way I look at it is that it does a lot of the same work Hellbound: Hellraiser II did by expanding the mythos exponentially (even Goran Visnjic’s feels more like the sequel’s villain, Channard, than anything like the first film) but with far more expressive visuals. Take the final shot of a character, gathered up into the bowels of Leviathan slowly being flayed and re-made as they join the order of the Cenobites on a gold alter surrounded by a ethereal, almost heavenly glow as their flesh is twisted and ruined beyond recognition – if that’s not Hellraiser, I truly don’t know what is.
After many long years, thanks to a filmmaker with vision and a budget, someone’s finally pinned down Pinhead.