Film Review – Hellraiser (2022)
This is one of those situations where you have characters in a horror movie doing the exact wrong thing at the exact wrong time. Find a spooky puzzle box that people warn you to stay away from? Let’s try opening it! A scary house filled with traps, dungeons, and secret passageways? Let’s go explore it! Trying to escape hellish monsters? Let’s all scream and flail about so we have no awareness of our surroundings! Characters making bad decisions has been a staple of the horror genre since its inception, but sometimes the choices are so ludicrous that it pulls us right out of the story. We want to root for the protagonists, but it’s difficult when everything they do defies common sense.
Hellraiser (2022) – a reworking of the 1987 film from Clive Barker – doesn’t skimp out on the monstrous imagery. Directed by David Bruckner with a screenplay by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (with David S. Goyer getting a screen story credit), this latest update transfers many of the same elements from the original, including the familiar puzzle box, the demonic monsters known as The Cenobites, and of course the iconic Hell Priest (nick named “Pinhead”). The biggest accomplishment is in the make-up and costume departments. They take inspiration from the first film and add a new twist to the designs. Instead of leather clad, S&M infused stylings, this version’s Cenobites are more organic. Imagine a combination of the creatures in a Guillermo del Toro project with the peeled skin/exposed muscle trappings of Bodies: The Exhibition.
As well conceived as Pinhead (Jamie Clayton) and the rest of the Cenobites are, the human characters go in the other direction. The writing paints our protagonists as little more than stock types, barely rising above generic templates. Riley (Odessa A’zion) is a recovering addict who lives with her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn) and his lover Colin (Adam Faison). She is in a relationship with fellow addict Trevor (Drew Starkey), which causes tension with Matt, since he believes they are wrong for one another. The themes of addiction, recovery, and relapse are lightly covered and almost ignored once Matt mysteriously vanishes. Riley is convinced that his disappearance has something to do with a puzzle box that she and Trevor discovered (aka stole). Despite all signs telling her not to, Riley tries to solve the puzzle box and find the connection between it and her brother.
Much is made of Riley’s guilt over causing her family and friends grief over her substance abuse. This is an odd take. The narrative argues that her struggles with staying sober are something to be ashamed of, which is probably not the best way to help an addict. But it acts as a motivational force that pushes Riley to make one ill decision after another. She acts without thinking of the dangers surrounding her. When Menaker (Hiam Abbass) – someone who had a previous experience with the box – warns Riley to get rid of it, she doesn’t listen. Once bad things start happening, Trevor pleads to toss the thing away, which she immediately disregards. Eventually, Riley – dragging along Trevor, Colin, and friend Nora (Aoife Hinds) – ends up exploring an abandoned mansion that wreaks of nothing but trouble. Riley is so headstrong with her investigation that she never stops to consider better (and safer) ways to go about it.
Fans of body horror/mutilation will get a kick out of this. Admittedly, I am not a fan of this type of horror, but Hellraiser does carry on the franchise’s tradition of visceral, graphic violence and gore. Wires wrap around limbs and cut into flesh, people are strung up by hooks and chains attached to their skin. Kill scenes incorporate strobe like effects. Those who are sensitive to flashing lights might find these sequences a little much to bear. These moments have a sadistic quality, as the Cenobites stand around like statues as the humans plead for mercy. While people getting tortured to the point of exploding isn’t exactly an “enjoyable” experience, there is something imaginative in how they are presented. One character has a device attached to their body that slowly pulls their insides out. While stomach churning, the machine isn’t like anything I have seen in recent years.
The biggest weakness – which makes this re-imagining a letdown – is that it is not a very interesting watch. Sure, the horror is sleek on a technical level, but dramatically there’s nothing that keeps us locked in. The heroes are bland and the villains lack personality outside of their looks. The scare scenes are gross and extreme, but not scary. This isn’t compelling, or insightful, or entertaining – it’s just kind of a drag. I don’t mind blood and guts on screen, some of the best movies ever made feature those aspects. This, however, revels in its despair. There’s a thin line between a thriller that wants characters to survive, and one that gleefully dives into the maiming and decapitations. Granted, this has always been part of the Hellraiser series. If you’re into that sort of thing, then more power to you. For this viewer, it’s not my cup of tea.
I will say this: there’s a running gag where the Cenobites have problems getting through metal fences and barriers. For a bunch of powerful demons from hell, with the ability to kill anyone with the flick of a finger, seeing them straining to get past a metal gate induced a couple of chuckles. At least it has that going for it.