Released: 8th October
Seen: 9th October
The Hellraiser franchise is one of the weirder major entries in the horror genre. Built around the idea of mixing sexuality and torture long before the phrase ‘torture porn’ was created as a pejorative for the more extreme kinds of horror, Hellraiser was always a series that sat just on the edge of the mainstream. You certainly knew about it thanks to the iconic image of Pinhead but it’s such a wild set of movies that even some horror fans might have issues with it (and also it kind of infamously started sucking around the 4th-5th movie, depending on which fan you ask). It’s also been the major horror franchise that’s avoided being rebooted longer than pretty much everything else… until now. It also is on the shortlist of “80s horror reboots that don’t suck”, a prestigious list if ever there was one.
This new version of Hellraiser follows a recovering addict named Riley (Odessa A’zion) who is only six months sober and trying to make it with the help of her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn), Matt’s boyfriend Colin (Adam Faison) and her roommate Nora (Aoife Hinds). Not helping much is her boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey) who she met in rehab but who is kind of shady, as evidenced by how he talks her into helping him perform a break-in on an old storage warehouse in order to steal a strange little golden puzzle.
This puzzle is special as it summons a bunch of demonic beings known as the Cenobites, led by a high priest known by the fandom as Pinhead (Jamie Clayton). When someone solves the puzzle, the box stabs them and calls forth the Cenobites to claim their victim using what could only be described as exquisite torture. With the Cenobites out and claiming souls, Riley and her friends will have to figure out how to stop them before all hell breaks loose.
Fortunately for new fans, Hellraiser doesn’t require much knowledge of the rest of the franchise in order to be enjoyable. While you might catch a few little references thrown in, most of what you need to know is found here and fairly well explained in such a way that you should be able to keep up when Hellraiser gets a little weird. It really helps this film stand separate from the rest of the franchise that came before it, even though it still keeps most of the imagery (the box is the same and a few other major pieces of Hellraiser imagery appear here almost perfectly copied). It’s a fresh start that is desperately needed for this franchise.
Hellraiser takes the time to let you really get to know the central characters and never portrays them as these perfect beings, Riley, in particular, is kind of a mess and there’s a strong relatability factor that helps you really engage in the human element of this film, which in turn makes it all the more upsetting once the Cenobites turn up and start throwing hooks and chains around like they’re decorating at the world’s most intense S&M party. It’s a film that lets things exist in the grey area, while some characters might be able to be called ‘protagonists’ you’d be hard-pressed to call anyone universally good or bad which makes for a more interesting experience whenever we have to take time for story stuff between bouts of torture.
Those little breaks for the classic Hellraiser torture are also wonderfully done, aided by the fact that the Cenobites this time around have been given a delightfully gooey upgrade. Everything about them has just been pushed a little further, their skin is a lot more pulled back, there’s more bone and muscle visible and everything glistens just a little bit in the moonlight in a way that’s disgusting and oddly sexual, as you would hope for this franchise.
Special props must go to Jamie Clayton who had the nearly impossible task of taking on a role like Pinhead that is defined by its original performer (Doug Bradley, who never appears in this film) and making that role her own. It would’ve been lovely to give her more to do but she got to say a few iconic lines and be an ethereal presence, she delivered the kind of performance that was required and did it amazingly. Genuinely hope they do a sequel just so we can see more of her work in this role.
The one big problem with Hellraiser, and for any other franchise this would be a weird thing to call out but in Hellraiser it kind of matters, is that the film doesn’t push the sexuality factor enough. Sure there’s a bit of it there, people have sex, there’s a gay couple (and they’re major characters!) and the Cenobites are clearly getting off on a lot of this but… I mean, this is Hellraiser, the franchise that’s basically “What if S&M but demonic and as extra as possible”. It should feel like each act of torture comes with just a little bit of pleasure from the victim, and that really doesn’t happen. It’s not a complete deal breaker, the movie is still quite good, but that’s just an element of the franchise that felt like it wasn’t as intense as it should be.
Still, Hellraiser is a pretty damn good reboot of a franchise that desperately needed it. It’s shocking and compelling, full of fascinating characters and more than a few quite intense moments of horror. It shows that there is still some serious juice left in this franchise and if they make more with this creative team then it could be the start of Pinhead’s much-deserved resurgence. If you’re even a little curious about the Hellraiser franchise, this is a fine entry point that’ll give you a pretty good idea of what this franchise can do when it’s at its best.