You have chosen the Sufficient Configuration.
Call me a cynic, but one of the benefits of assuming the worst going into a horror film is that it’s almost impossible not to find yourself completely satisfied with your own lack of faith in humanity. But occasionally, a harmonious level of adequacy is achieved.
Of course, that’s a pretty low bar to clear. But not many franchises have such a low batting average as Hellraiser. So imagine my surprise when something starting so far below zero finished so far above five?
I’ll give you the scale later.
The setup is simple. Through clandestine means, eccentric billionaire Roland Voight (Goran Višnjić) comes into possession of the infamous Puzzle Box that is the centerpiece of the Hellraiser world.
It’s the puzzle that solves YOU!
Voight has the kind of affluence that’s allowed him to explore the depths of perversion and sensual debauchery.
But for him, it’s not enough.
He’s turned his sprawling estate into a pleasure palace, full of friends’ splayed bodies, colleagues’ money, and the compliant chaff of impressionable sex workers. After sacrificing one of them to the Box – a process that involves being ripped apart with anchor chains – Voight uses the young man’s suffering to open a portal to another realm.
After a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it time jump we’re introduced to Riley (Odessa A’zion), a struggling drug addict who lives with her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn), his boyfriend Colin (Adam Faison) and random roommate Nora (Aoife Hinds), who seems exclusively destined to be part of the body count. Together they come across as a dull-but-gritty Scooby-Doo Gang, minus the Great Dane or any and all traces of whimsy.
Riley also has a boyfriend named Trevor (Drew Starkey) who she met in rehab. He’s a sketchy guy, full of nervous tics and obvious secrets. They have great sex, though, which is likely why Riley is the only member of the household who tolerates him.
I mean, who sits like that?
That distrust is amplified when Trevor talks Riley into a minor theft that nets them nothing but an odd-looking metallic puzzle box. He trusts Riley to keep it, and we get our inciting incident when she tinkers with the thing, triggering a brush with demonic forces that cause Matt to disappear.
The film, even at this point, is a superior Hellraiser experience to anything made since 1990. Director David Bruckner, known for his contributions to things like V/H/S and The Night House, has an undeniable knack for getting the camera under your skin (pun intended).
The first act of the film features what’s meant to be an orgy at Voight’s home, but you’d hardly know it other than a blurry background shot of two fully clothed people grinding on a couch. The imagery gets the job done, but it feels a bit artificial for a story that we know is going to eventually show us things that cannot be unseen.
You know, like this…um…guy? I think?
It’s all okay, though, because none of this is why we’re here. Pinhead is why we’re here, and the infamous Hell Priest is now played by Jamie Clayton (Sense 8, The L Word), whose performance successfully captures the intended nature of this supernatural being. In Clive Barker’s original source material, the character is so physically distorted as to be gender neutral; casting a woman seems an inspired choice.
So while nostalgia presses me to remain partial to Doug Bradley’s operatic bluster, Clayton’s coldly rational take on the character probably better fits this interpretation of the Hellraiser universe.
Whenever Pinhead and the other demons are onscreen, the film is fascinating. The idea that there exists, somewhere, a puzzle that if you’re clever enough to solve, celestial beings will reward you is…exhilarating. The Cenobites, as they are called, seem to enjoy interacting with their quarry and appear to look at them not as victims, but companions.
But these beings are misshapen abominations of flesh and bone that bear little resemblance to the humans they once were. And in their realm, what constitutes a “reward” is akin to the difference between horseshoes and hand grenades.
And according to Pinhead, to think you can reconcile this in anything less than an eternity will just increase your suffering.
When it plays with your imagination this way, Hellraiser succeeds. When it cribs from other sources, not so much. The setup I described earlier could be from literally any story about a cursed talisman. And the final act bears similarity to a slightly obscure horror classic whose remake I happen to have seen recently.
I can’t resist, but I also can’t make it easy.
But by the time it ends, Hellraiser succeeds because it wrangles a spooky premise into a relatable protagonist, pairs it with a complex antagonist and brings it all to a stirring conclusion.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though.
Riley and her brother experience a blowup the night before he disappears and it carries a lot of weight, since it concerns her poor life choices and the effect they have on those around her. It’s not innovative, but it puts us in Riley’s head. She loves her brother, but she’s weighed down (perhaps fatally) by her habits and decisions.
You might say she already has demons. So when Matt vanishes and she becomes obsessed with finding him it’s her first sign of growth, and I, for one, was here for it.
On the one hand, this is a generic story. Questionably sympathetic character gets mixed up with the wrong people, stumbles upon a super-evil mechanical box, people start getting ripped apart. But Riley’s path post-box starts to look a lot like her old one, once the actual ripping starts. So fixated is she on what she wants, she fails to see more immediately important things happening around her.
Maybe that’s why the story’s true intrigue comes from Riley’s ongoing relationship with Pinhead, who has the advantage of both foresight and inter-dimensional travel. There are silver threads running through this grimy sackcloth of a story, and they trace the arc of the only character that really matters here, which is Riley herself.
This is a story about choices, as I believe a good Hellraiser movie should be.
Where the original film felt more like an inventive Twilight Zone knockoff from, well, hell, this version lands as more of a fully realized journey, despite a comparable level of thinness. Handling the Box comes with a price and whether you join the Cenobites or resist, they are determined to teach you an uncompromising lesson about your own nature.
And, about 101 uses for tow chains.
It is implied that Voight experienced a version of this, and the echoes of his lesson inform Riley’s quest.
None of this is new to Hellraiser; it’s just the first time it’s been done truly effectively, more or less from start to finish, in a single installment. Bruckner’s revival doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but it breathes new life into an overrated IP that’s been on life support at least since the Spice Girls were still a thing.
Most of the rough edges we’ve come to associate with B-movie horror have been sanded off. Some will consider this a “flaw”, and the part of my brain that never grew up was prompting me with the same signals, at least at first. The sexuality in this movie is as soft as soft-core as can be, but it still lands.
We get it.
Riley is the rare drug addict whom we’re never actually shown using drugs, and yet she’s never too stoned not to be wearing a fresh coat of lip gloss. Despite the creepy atmosphere, excellent monster design and solid direction, Hellraiser 2022 isn’t as edgy, gritty, or even as scary as it thinks it is.
Just don’t look to your…LEFT!.
Old Man Disney himself could probably sit through about a third of this with minimal complaint. Which is good, because the streaming service owned by his company is the one behind this production, and it’s a lot more grown-up than its predecessors.
This is a good movie. Not great, and not even a great horror movie. But a harmonious level of adequacy has been achieved.
Finally, at long last, the Hellraiser franchise has achieved the Sufficient Configuration.
Welcome back, Pinhead.
Hellraiser is currently streaming exclusively on Hulu.
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Bruce?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."