THE STORY – A young woman must confront the sadistic, supernatural forces behind an enigmatic puzzle box responsible for her brother’s disappearance.
THE CAST – Odessa A’zion, Jamie Clayton, Brandon Flynn, Goran Višnjić, Drew Starkey, Adam Faison, Aoife Hinds, Selina Lo & Hiam Abbass
THE TEAM – David Bruckner (Director), Ben Collins & Luke Piotrowski (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 121 Minutes
Plenty of horror fans can recall the specific thrill of being a kid and walking through the horror aisle at the local video store, daring themselves to stare at the frightening images on tattered VHS boxes. One of the most notable and terrifying covers was “Hellraiser,” with the snarling face of the demonic Pinhead surely inspiring countless nightmares. The classic ’80s film is a legendary tale of sadomasochism, passion, and spiritual terror. Director David Bruckner had a hefty challenge in taking on such an iconic horror property with his latest film, also titled “Hellraiser.” It seeks to differentiate itself by being a new adaptation of the source material – Clive Barker’s spectacular novella “The Hellbound Heart” – rather than a direct remake of the 1987 film. And while this is a wise choice that keeps the two movies from being directly compared, unfortunately, the new “Hellraiser” can’t help but delve into tropes that plague modern films – namely, frustratingly incompetent characters, overly explanatory writing, and lackluster visuals.
In-the-know viewers will recognize the familiar story beats – a mysterious puzzle box seemingly has the power to invite dark forces to our mortal plane to enact brutal, sexually-tinged violence on unlucky humans. It’s most recently fallen into the hands of Riley (Odessa A’zion), a young woman struggling with addiction who seems allergic to stability in her life. When the puzzle box somehow leads to her brother Matt’s (Brandon Flynn) disappearance, she must battle various demons, both internal and external, in her attempt to find and rescue him.
Perhaps the biggest departure from the source material is in the film’s choice of main characters. Rather than focusing on a pair of dastardly former lovers doing whatever it takes to literally reunite their flesh, this “Hellraiser” centers around an ensemble of young adults who are unknowingly thrust into the torturous plot. Disappointingly, none of the characters are very compelling, and in fact, their apparent stupidity and poor decision-making in the face of dire circumstances only leads to frustration rather than sympathy. The actors do their best, with A’zion in particular injecting levels of terror and emotion beyond what the script calls for. But the writing does none of them any favors. As the infamous needle-headed Priest, Jamie Clayton is a worthy successor to actor Doug Bradley’s work in the original series. Her immediately iconic vocal work, shark eyes, and “was that the shadow of a smile?” facial expressions inspire both fear and a strange allure.
The horrifying Cenobites, of which Clayton’s Priest is the ostensible leader, are deliciously horrible creatures with fantastic and specific designs. They each seem to represent a particular type of torture or center around an individual corrupted body part. However, they’re often so dimly lit that it’s difficult to know exactly what the audience is supposed to be frightened of. It’s one thing to mysteriously obscure a nightmarish creature for maximum suspense; it’s another to force those watching to squint in confusion. And while the film may seek to make the Cenobites visually mysterious, the screenplay delves into their mythology and behavior with such detail that it strips the film of some of the terror that their unknowability could bring. Thankfully, the film doesn’t skimp on the gore and violence that these malevolent beings delight in bringing about, which makes up for some of the movie’s lesser elements.
Hopefully, “Hellraiser” inspires another generation of young horror viewers who may stumble upon its scary poster on their streaming app. But unfortunately, this thematically shallow adaptation of Barker’s brilliant work of gothic, erotic horror doesn’t live up to its damnable title.