It’s time someone gave the Hellraiser series a proper relaunch. While it is one of the most long-lasting franchises in modern horror, most fans tend to land on there being two quality films and a handful of others that either have some odd charms or are just flat-out bad. That’s not a knock against the movies themselves or the filmmakers who created the various chapters in this ongoing saga. It’s just acknowledging the fact that this series has been a niche corner of horror for a long time, and it’s finally time that someone put together a brand-new film for a modern audience and for it to get some much-deserved attention again.
Thanks to David Bruckner, that wish has become a really fun reality full of blood, interdimensional monsters, puzzles, and pain and pleasure combined. In this new film, Bruckner and writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski go back to the basics. They return to identify the essence of the series and build a brand-new story around those elements.
The film opens with a very wealthy man throwing a very swanky and sexy party. A certain guest at the party finds himself wandering around the estate and winds up in one of the large galleries, examining a piece of art—a very curious puzzle box. It is at this point that our host emerges. Mr. Voight (Goran Visnjic) is both seductive and inviting. He encourages his young guest to continue trying to solve the puzzle. The box begins to shift and change and then suddenly, a jagged piece erupts from within the metal framework and cuts our naive friend. I’m sure you can probably guess what happens then.
Fast forward a few years. Voight has disappeared, his mansion has been closed off, and the puzzle box has been locked in a vault in an unassuming industrial area. Until Riley (Odessa A’zion) and her friend Trevor (Drew Starkey) decide to steal it. They have no idea what it is, only that it’s the property of some wealthy guy and is probably worth a lot of money. Riley and Trevor are both in recovery, and though Riley has a good support system around her, she still struggles, particularly with her brother and his overreaching (though still caring) desire to ensure she stays clean.
But as we all know, if there is one thing you don’t ever want to steal, it’s a demon puzzle box. It isn’t long before the box is once again moving and opening doors to other dimensions. In this story, however, it’s not a straight shot between picking up the box and the Cenobites dragging you to hell. There are multiple configurations that have to be unlocked before reaching the end of the journey, at which point the solver of the puzzle is granted a prize of their choosing. The writing team opted not to do a straight reboot of the 1987 film and to instead bring in additional world building and story elements from Barker’s books. It makes for a rich story that is very much in the world of Hellraiser but doesn’t attempt to just recycle the same beats again and again.
Let’s talk about the Cenobites of Bruckner’s Hellraiser. There are a lot of them. Some you will recognize as updated versions of the demons that have appeared earlier in the series, and others are brand new and horrifyingly beautiful. I can’t wait to watch this film at home and be able to pause it on various shots and really take a close look at the design of some of these creatures. The team definitely kept the body mutilation element in play but updated the designs a bit. There is still plenty of flesh and blood to make your stomach turn, but there is also a new level of splendor to these creatures.
Take the Priest*, for instance. Jamie Clayton is exquisite. She embodies the role in a way that is simultaneously familiar and completely her own. She maintains the powerful sense of assuredness that we have come to associate with the character, while also bringing in her own subtle touches. Her costume design is gorgeous and visceral. One thing I particularly love is how they included the all-important facial pins, but rather than simply raw metal, they put pearl heads on each pin. It really emphasized the elegance of the design while also keeping it horrific.
The box is similarly embellished. It’s gorgeous and solid metal. It really has a lot of weight to it, and every movement that it makes takes it into a new design. Bruckner lets it be more than a prop. Every time it changes shape, the camera lingers and lets us examine it alongside the characters. It’s almost hypnotic.
And the Cenobites themselves? Vicious. That’s the thing that always struck me about Clive Barker’s boogeymen. Above everything else, they are powerful and they are cruel. Whatever these beings are, they are bigger than us. If we are unfortunate enough to cross their paths, there is nothing that we can do. We can’t outrun them, out-fright them, or outmatch them. Bruckner brought back that sense of power and Clayton embodies it fully.
The film is everything we could want. It’s scary and intense and freaking bloody; everything we love about this series is there, but it doesn’t feel like it’s being checked off a list. Bruckner and his team do a good job of bringing in all of the elements that we associate with Hellraiser while also giving them an update to fit the times of the new film. It doesn’t feel like we are just recycling things for the hundredth time. They are given a new life and soul that is true to the series while also still giving it the space to be its own thing. It’s really the mark of a good reboot—bringing all of those elements into harmony and then using them to tell a good story.
Movie Score: 5/5
*(They took care to call her “Priest” during the Fantastic Fest Q&A. That could be to distinguish her from Doug Bradley’s performance, or it could be just a desire to stay true to the character’s original name. Either way, I’m going to honor that distinction here).