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Hellraiser Review: Fantastic Fest 2022

The Hellraiser franchise has always been a bit of a dichotomy – the profane and the beautiful, the elegant and the crass, the sexuality and the agony all go hand in bloody hand. Some entries are better than others, but this has always been a series where the point is the extreme nature of it.

Clive Barker made the first film on a shoestring budget, mostly just to see if he could. The pleasures of that film feel a little quaint now, even silly at times. But there’s a Do-It-Yourself punk rock tenacity to it that wins out, and Hellraiser for all its scrappiness remains one of my favorite horror films.

Hellraiser Review: Fantastic Fest 2022

The second one, Hellbound, is even better in quality and scope — it wasn’t made for much more than the first, and the first one was already very low-budget — but it makes up for that with a fierce imagination and world building that’s far more ambitious than its budget would suggest. Taken as a whole, the first two films (and really, they should be watched that way, if you haven’t seen them) are epic horror done right.

True cosmic horror is a rare thing in the genre, and I love how those first Hellraiser movies up the ante, even today. It is a bleak, hopeless universe, where whatever passes for God lives in the nerve endings and the poor souls who live there have nothing to look forward to but pain, infinite. You don’t watch a Hellraiser movie for any catharsis for the human condition. You watch it for the sweet suffering.

David Bruckner, the director of the franchise’s latest entry, knows this. His previous film, The Night House, felt very inspired by the ethereal nature of the Hellraiser films, so it feels right that he takes up the mantle here. Fans of the series can relax – Bruckner is well versed on what it takes to walk down the blasphemous corridors of the Labyrinth and gives Hellraiser (2022) a razorwire beauty all its own.

Even more importantly — Hellraiser serves as both a reboot and a sequel — if you have no interest in seeing the originals, you don’t have to, but if you’re a fan, Bruckner has very much made a film that drops right back into Clive Barker’s dark universe.

Hellraiser Review

The story centers around the Lament Configuration, a puzzle box that when solved opens the door to a dimension of sensation and of the open wound, where the god Leviathan reigns, and his angels, the Cenobites, are there to show humanity the wonders of serrated flesh. But Bruckner, along with screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, add their own twists of the material.

This time, the box requires blood to summon the Cenobites, and each transformation of the box brings the one who holds it closer to eternal… salvation? Damnation? Intertwined? This series has always thrived on its ambiguity and the new one is no different.

Hellraiser Review

When Riley (Odessa A’zion), along with her boyfriend (Drew Starkey) break into a storage unit owned by a reclusive, missing billionaire (Goran Visnjic), they restart a chain of events many years in the making. Soon Riley’s brother (Brandon Flynn) is taken by the Cenobites, and Riley must navigate all of it if she is to find a way to bring her brother back.

Fans, of course, want to know – how is Jamie Clayton‘s performance as Pinhead, the iconic Hell Priest of the Cenobites, once played by Doug Bradley? Detractors of the recasting apparently forgot that Clive Barker is a gay icon of horror and that his work was always transgressive. Jamie Clayton doesn’t just fill Doug Bradley’s gridded flesh; I honestly think she’s even better.

Gone, by the way, is the soldier backstory, at least for now – the Hellpriest returns to the ambiguity of the first film, and all the better for that. In fact, Clayton brings a sensuality to Pinhead that was a bit lacking to Bradley’s work. Hellraiser is a surprisingly horny movie and thank the Labyrinth for that. Considering too much horror is chaste these days, it’s refreshing that David Bruckner doesn’t shy away from the sex. The sexuality of the Hellraiser films was always a feature, not a bug, and Bruckner puts all that back into the film.

Hellraiser does take a bit of time to get going – much of the film’s first half is establishing the universe again, and for fans of the franchise they will be ahead of where the film is going for much of that time. The series was always trying to top itself in innovative uses of gore and makeup effects, and while the makeup work is top notch, many of the “kills” we’ve seen before. Bruckner is playing with the iconic imagery of the first two films, so that’s understandable, but I was hoping for a little more variety.

That said, the Cenobites themselves are wonderful creature design – not only do we get a return of the Chatterer but some innovative new Cenobites that are a marvel to look at. This is a series that lives and dies by its art design, but Bruckner wisely lets the art department go nuts on the architecture and the props and this gives Hellraiser a very rich visual palette, especially in the second half.

One of the best things about Hellraiser is the score from Ben Lovett, who weaves the iconic score from Christopher Young right into the soundtrack. Smart move, doing that – that score is legitimately one of the all-time greats of the horror genre and it wouldn’t have felt like a true Hellraiser movie had Bruckner not done that. It’s a gorgeous, sumptuous score that fits right in there.

So as a fan of the series, where does Hellraiser fit? I prefer the joys of Hellbound, where the ambition clearly outweighed its budget, and as an expansion of the ideas and the world of the first, Hellbound feels playful and exciting. But Bruckner’s Hellraiser is a fine continuation of that world.

It’s exciting to see what lies ahead for this series, if Disney (!) decides to make more of these. Just typing that feels strange. I was fortunate to see this in a movie theater, with the soundtrack pounding on speakers and the spectacular gore on a fifty-foot screen for all to bathe in. It’s a big movie with a big budget, and Hellraiser (2022) deserves that scope and that kind of treatment.

Considering that Hulu is about to expose millions to this weird, ambitious franchise, I’m very curious how newcomers will respond to it. But if this reinvigorates the series and gets us great directors to play in this universe, I’m all for it. Such sights to show us, indeed.

HELLRAISER REVIEW SCORE: 7.5 OUT OF 10

Hellraiser will be available on Hulu starting Friday, October 7. The film is rated R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual content and brief graphic nudity.

Hellraiser Review

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