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John’s Horror Corner: Hellraiser (2022), a visually and thematically brilliant reimagining that demands discussion and comparisons to the early films and Clive Barker’s Hellbound Heart.

November 8, 2022

MY CALL:  This… this is what you’ve been waiting and longing for all these years, all these these decades. You scratched an itch with sequel after sequel to ill-construed reimagining from 2000-2018, and now you finally see the reward for your suffering. This glorious reimagining truly has such sights to show you. 

MORE Hellraiser MOVIES:  There’s a lot of them. Be sure to see Hellraiser (1987) and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988), of course. Then maybe Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth (1992), or even just skip to Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (1996).  Hellraiser V: Inferno (2000), Hellraiser VI: Hellseeker (2002) and Hellraiser VII: Deader (2005) are all more standalone films that are decent but hold no candle to parts I-II or the worthy part IV. Hellraiser VIII: Hellworld (2005) and Hellraiser IX: Revelations (2011) are easily the worst, perhaps slightly bested by Hellraiser (X): Judgment (2018) even if by creativity alone.

After touring a luxurious orgy in the Voight estate, we wander through the mansion to a gallery room serving as a shrine to the icon of the franchise: the Puzzle Box. Our introduction to the Box lacks the mystique of 1987 and instead brings with it the lofty reverence of nearly 40 years of Hellraiser fanfare. With the trigger set, the Box reconfigures itself as a gate to another world forms in empty space where no doorway could possibly exist, through which jettison hooked chains that impale, outstretch and suspend its solver before presumably dragging them to Hell. All the while Voight (Goran Visnjic; The Accursed, Santa Clarita Diet) gazes in humble satisfaction at the relic, awaiting a hopeful audience with the God at the other side of the infernal portal.

If you’ve never seen a Hellraiser film before, you should stop reading now. Discussions of the past films in this essay-like review will double as SPOILERS for this 2022 movie if you are new to the franchise.

The original Hellraiser (1987) was a chamber thriller about an infernal fugitive reconstituting his body one chunk of fleshy sopping viscera at a time from human victims in an almost vampiric manner. We find the same actions amid a far grander, world-building story in Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988). No such thing occurs in this remake. This 2022 film is more about the box itself, the consequences it brings to those who dare dream of the rewards for opening it, and the desires of the “angels” it summons to bestow these rewards. Those who loved 1988’s world-building will find tastes of it in the imagery and story, which otherwise remains grounded in our Earthly realm, only being touched by this nigh-unimaginable influence, more as in 1987.

In this reimagining, Riley (Odessa A’zion; The Inhabitant, Let’s Scare Julia) is an addict who encounters the Box, loses a loved one, and seeks to use the powers of the box to resurrect him. Riley’s curiosity with the Box elicits a knowing and satisfyingly familiar anticipation (among Hellraiser fans) as she manipulates and inquisitively thumbs the cursed artifact into new and different configurations than we saw in our parents’ Hellraiser movies. Her brother, boyfriend and close friends get caught up in her Puzzle Box endeavors which lead them all to the wealthy Voight’s mansion. Little do they understand that the box conjures horridly mutilated, infernal stewards known as Cenobites, which see the puzzle box solver’s wish fulfilled with dark pleasure. Of the Cenobites, only Pinhead and Chatterer will be familiar, with Weeper, Masque, Mother, Gasp and Asphyx offering new and interesting mutilations to titillate your gory sensibilities.

While still obviously the iconic Pinhead (even if not named as such), our lead Cenobite is referred to only as The Priest (Jamie Clayton; Sense8, The L Word: Generation Q, The Neon Demon). With so many casting decisions in film being made out of timely and much needed conscientious diversity and inclusion, casting a transgender woman as the iconic Hell Priest Pinhead was exactly the kind of decision that should have been made in 1987—not that the world was yet ready for that. After all, in Barker’s short story The Hellbound Heart, the Priest’s voice and appearance were described in gender-ambiguous terms.

Clive Barker’s original Hellraiser (1987) was steeped in the sexual “deviancy” of bondage and sadomasochism, with themes of genderless sexuality, dark desires and blood exchange from his own history with homosexuality and HIV. The sexuality and bondage themes have been partially replaced by themes of addiction and grief in this 2022 reboot. And although “pain as pleasure” remains a focal point, we have ditched the Cenobites’ snug black leather wardrobes for additional lengths of taught flesh stretched tightly across their bodies like saltwater taffy. Trust me, you’ll wince when you see close-ups.

Of course, the menace of promised physical torture, flesh flaying, and impalement abounds. The gore is exactly as extensive and frequent as it should be. Very bloody, occasionally very chunky, and often shocking in execution. The Cenobites are exquisite visions of Hellish stewards, with perhaps considerably more elaborate flesh-flaying body modifications than ever we’ve seen. The budget, effects and intellectual innovation exceed that of anything we’ve seen since Hellbound or Bloodline. The hooked chain visuals are every bit as familiar as we yearn for them to be, yet different enough to feel novel from what we’ve seen in the past; creative and inspired, yet still the bloody hooked-chain mess we want.

Taking a hard turn from the original film, instead of “feeding” victims to a person seeking escape from Hell via fleshy reconstitution, Riley instead must feed the Box and the Cenobites victims in order to resurrect her lost loved one. So Riley serves as a combination of the original roles of Kirsty and her wicked stepmother Julia. I was also pleased at how Voight and his home call back strongly to Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) and Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (1996), which together with Hellraiser (1987) (and specifically excluding Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth (1992)) form my original Hellraiser Trilogy. Moreover this reboot has taken the strengths of these three films, marrying them into a single cohesive vision of sin, sinner and Hellish consequence. I must say, I approve.

Were I to criticize, I’d prefer a single victim’s journey (as in Hellraiser I-II and most sequels) rather than this typical ensemble of twentysomething victims. But as far as victim ensemble tropes go, this played out surprisingly effectively. Even if the secondary characters were not great, they were never empty-lined, throwaway, forgettable roles for death scene fodder. I’d also prefer the markedly more dire tone of 1987. While a truly wonderful reimagining of Barker’s work, the gravity just doesn’t attain quite the same levels of hopelessness nor hold on as strong after the wowing opening Puzzle Box introduction in Voight’s mansion.

Director David Bruckner (V/H/S segment “Amateur Night”, Southbound segment “The Accident”, The Ritual) has pleased me with his past forays into horror, and continues to impress me today. Or… wowed me today! The performance, direction, effects and production value are all fantastic. This is what Hellraiser fans have anticipated for decades. Oh, and the flesh-flaying finale… David Bruckner and his Cenobites truly did have such sights to show us.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 9, 2022 2:23 pm

    An intriguing an innovative new spin on the original film, concept, and novel on which Hellraiser was based. I’m a big fan of the hellraiser films and Clive Barker’s books. Must admit I was a little hesitant about this new Hellraiser reboot, but I though it was great, and one of the best new horror films I’ve seen in a long time.

    • John Leavengood permalink
      November 9, 2022 6:24 pm

      Same across the board. And after Hellworld, Revelations and Judgment, we had every reason to have the anxiety of a shelter animal. But thank the Cenobites, our suffering finally did culminate in a reward. 😉

  2. November 10, 2022 9:56 am

    Great review, John. While the middle HELLRAISER entries (3 – whichever one came before REVELATIONS) are a blind spot in my horror viewing, I was utterly floored by this new one. If it doesn’t crack my Top 5 horrors of 2022, it’ll definitely be within the Top 10.

    • John Leavengood permalink
      November 10, 2022 1:54 pm

      You know, there’s objective top 5 films, and top 5 impacts/favorites on us. I’d estimate if not a top 5 horror film, it would at the very least end up among our top 5 most impactful.

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