When one imagines the Hellraiser franchise, the gloom and ugliness come spewing out. While Clive Barker‘s original film featured cutting-edge makeup and special effects, the subsequent films in the franchise struggled to live up to his talent. Instead, images of Pinhead and the other Cenobites became bits of self-parody. The franchise felt like a relic of the late 1980s, similar to the rise of Image comics under Todd McFarlane. A seminal text in the rise of Splatterpunk, Hellraiser still maintains a nostalgic space for Gen X and Millenial horror fans. That made Hulu‘s release of Hellraiser (2022) one of the most anticipated films of the horror season. Thanks to director David Bruckner it appears the franchise has risen from the grave.
Riley McKendry (Odessa A’zion) finds herself at a crossroads. Plagued by drug addiction, she needs to make a big move to reset her life. Her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn) is letting her stay with him, but their relationship is tense. She’s also met Trevor (Drew Starkey) at a meeting, and the two quickly form a bond. When Trevor pitches a theft to Riley, they believe they’ve found their ticket out of their circumstances. However, the only item at the score is a puzzle box. After Riley plays with it, her brother goes missing and otherworldly creatures begin appearing to her as visions.
Working off a script from Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, Bruckner crafts a solid foundation to relaunch Hellraiser in 2022. Despite the franchise’s tendencies to harm sexually active characters, there’s a randomness to Hellraiser that removes the “pay for their sins” attitude. In fact, the positioning of the Cenobites as simply creatures doing their job helps sell the shift.
What helps elevate Hellraiser is a willingness to create a new visual aesthetic for the franchise. The smoother, more modern look of the cenobites still embraces the grotesque. The team clearly draws from Barker’s original designs and Guillermo Del Toro’s mythical stories.
The Cenobites’ terrifying look compliments their subdued performances. Jaime Clayton steps into the Pinhead role as “The Priest” and adds instant gravitas to this depiction. There’s a calculating subtlety in the role, and while the Cenobites appear hands-off, Clayton adds a dash of menace. It’s a very good performance from a character with limited screen time, and Clayton pops instantly.
Additionally, A’Zion brings the struggle of addiction and guilt to life. Her hyper-emotional performance both emulates the highs and lows of drug dependency but also stands in stark contrast to the Cenobites. When she’s terrified, the feeling seeps through the screen and infects the viewer. While the character makes many bad choices, A’Zion wins us over with her vulnerability.
Where Hellraiser loses some points is in the storytelling. While A’Zion’s story logically tracks, it’s execution falters at times. This Hellraiser struggles with providing rationales for killing many of the victims. Where other horror films at least highlight a perceivable flaw in their characters, Hellraiser simply puts its characters at the wrong place at the wrong time. This makes for something more meanspirited. This makes for an odd dichotomy, considering that this entry in the franchise is known for being considerably more meanspirited than this entry ever gets.
The latest Hellraiser feature might draw some divisive takes, but on the whole, it is prime for bringing new audiences into the fold. With stunning new visuals and some above-average performances, it fits into the modern horror landscape. As it paves a clear path toward sequels, questions about Bruckner’s return will linger. After all, he’s delivered the best film in the franchise since the original.