Review: Hellraiser (2022)

Preamble

Hellraiser to me is what The Exorcist is to Mark Kermode. It’s a film that I treasure, adore and have written about extensively. While it’s not my favourite movie, it’s unquestionably the pinnacle of the horror genre with its transgressive depiction of a marriage in its last throes (among other themes). With this in mind, my eyebrows were raised with sheer curiosity about a reboot that’s had Clive Barker’s blessing and gender flipped Pinhead. Does it reinvigorate the horror franchise? Have you seen the film? Let me know in the comments below.

And if you like my ramblings on all things horror then you can check out more of my work at my second home, Horror Obsessive. My recent piece examines how Clive Barker adapted his novella, The Hellbound Heart into the 1987 film, Hellraiser.

Review

Despite having an almost limitless and transgressive premise, the Hellraiser series has crashed and burnt much quicker than other horror movie franchises. It went to space in its fourth entry (Bloodline), lived in direct-to-video infamy since its fifth instalment (Inferno), and even had time to create a cynically made rights retainer with its ninth movie (Revelations). Despite having a considerably bigger budget, the new Hellraiser proves to be a slick and ultimately empty experience, that plucks and tries to add to familiar strings without saying anything interesting.

The 2022 reimagining of Clive Barker’s 1987 film tells the story of a recovering drug addict named Riley (Odessa A’zion) who stumbles upon the deadly puzzle box after breaking into an abandoned storage warehouse. After being thrown out of her brother’s apartment and taking some pills, Riley solves the puzzle box. The act starts a chain of events that results in the disappearance of her older sibling, an encounter with an eccentric and mutilated millionaire, and the demonic Cenobites he’s been trying to summon (beings who have an inhuman definition of pleasure and pain).

Hellraiser exists in a strange purgatory, which straddles the line between the elevated horror trend that has engulfed the genre in recent years and a drastic reconceptualization of the original material. The result is an odd tug-of-war that’s straining between an overexplained mythology and an undercooked thematic exploration. Conceptually, the film is attempting to make the puzzle box (aka The Lemarchand Configuration) a metaphor for Riley’s addiction and some of her encounters with the Cenobites as a result of her drug taking (via quite trippy and almost boozy pov shots). However, the film undermines these points due to a third-act reveal of manipulation (as opposed to an organic downward spiral that feels in keeping with the additive personality of the character) and the same point of view shots given to other victims of the box.

What remains is an expansion of the mythology via a series of configurations of the puzzle box, ultimately leading to a host of wishes that the user can request from the Cenobites. By itself, it’s not a bad idea, but the screenplay is vague, often treating the narrative like a puzzle that the audience has to solve, much like the central object. This is compounded by many scenes that feel contrived in how the puzzle box hurts the people it comes into contact with. With this in mind, many of the revelations and mythology changes feel crowbarred into a rushed third act, which speedily gets to its point, undermining the emotional truth of many of the scenes.

This is a far cry from the original film that effortlessly in its filmmaking made wry points about marriage, had an atmosphere that blurred the line between the mundane and supernatural as well as depicting taboo material with ease. Even the sequels remained campy fun and mildly interesting in some aspects they added to the mythology and franchise.

This is an aspect that the 2022 film lacks, straining in its po-faced earnestness to say something important, but ultimately stumbling so much that it loses the essence of what it’s trying to explore. Despite these problems, I still found things to like about the film. Jamie Clayton proves to be a magnetic and formidable screen presence as a reinterpreted Pinhead (aka The Priest) that feels more faithful to Clive Barker’s original text. In particular, Clayton’s commanding voice emphasizes the religiosity and gender neutrality that pervaded the Lead Cenobite character in Barker’s novella (The Hellbound Heart).

And some sequences, including the aforementioned scene where Riley first sees the Cenobites, are a chilling combination of framing and camera moves that seek to illustrate the potential horror of drug-induced visions. Plus, there’s an extended sequence involving the mocking of a woman with breathing problems that are blood-curdling in its implications.

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About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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