David Bruckner solves the puzzle, delivering the best HELLRAISER film in decades!
The Hellraiser franchise is a textbook example of the law of diminishing returns when it comes to horror sequels. What really amplifies this statement, is just how good those first two films were, before the series stumbled on its third outing after the property was picked up by the Weinsteins and Dimension pictures. There were nine Hellraiser films before this, and yes they even go to space (super underrated entry!), but they never get close to reaching the dizzying heights of those first two entries. Since the first film was based on a short story, the more they added the muddier the mythology tend to get as it went along and more than a few scripts for other projects were also repurposed by the Weinsteins and shoehorned into Hellraiser films. What I am trying to say here is it’s been 3 decades since there was a really good one. But that’s all about to change, originally announced in 2006, we are finally getting that series reboot thanks to Hulu, and it’s easily the third best film in the series.
Right off the back the film introduces us to Riley (Odessa A’zion), a troubled recovering addict who while robbing a shipping container supposedly containing “Billionaire shit” discovers only the infamous puzzle box. When her good hearted yet doting brother who spends his time attempting to keep Riley clean, accidentally triggers the box, he is taken by the Cenobites — who are led by a new “Pinhead” or priest if you will, played by Jamie Clayton. In this entry how you are marked by the box is not simply by “solving” it, after that piece is complete — a sharp instrument will usually be triggered and protrude from the box and takes your blood marking you as a sacrifice to the Cenobites. After Riley’s brother is killed, she falls down the rabbit hole into just what happened to her brother and how to get him back. This puzzle box has multiple configurations, and the way it works is to unlock each configuration it involves not only solving the box, but a human sacrifice as well. The last configuration offers a choice of either love, knowledge, power life or resurrection, this where you can resurrect the dead, like Frank in the original(this info was dropped by the director during the post film Q&A). This has the Priest forcing Riley to play a game and serving up sacrifices, to hopefully get her brother back.
The main thing I really dug about this new Hellraiser is the mythology that’s established in its runtime. In previous entries we’d see someone “solve” the box and the Cenobites would show up, or possibly something else would happen. We never really established any rules for what triggers what or how the box even works, we just kind of went with it. Here we get hard rules that establish 5 sacrifices have to be made to trigger six different box configurations, which will get you an audience with Leviathan to grant your innermost desire. Once you are marked by the box and it has your blood you belong to the Cenobites, so this motivates those looking for these delights to feed the box, to unlock the next configuration. But it appears there is still a bit of wiggle room in the finer print, this has the Priest playing a game with Riley offering her the ability to serve her sacrifices to resurrect her brother, taking her blood and setting her free so if she wanted to she could take her any time. Not only does this logic make sense it adds some real stakes to the story, while supplying the plot with real measurable goal posts.
The other thing I think most fans like myself will probably be surprised by is the new Cenobite designs. They are super slick looking, like they could have been from some lost video game, and practical as they should be. While there are some new designs that were really impressive, a few fan favorites return with a new spin. The biggest change in the Cenobite design is the lack of black leather, that was a nod to BDSM. This entry has them clad in a lighter leather, but made from their own skin that has been turned into garments or accouterments. Its garish and ghastly, but it was an interesting way to reinvent the wheel, while still adding to the horror and mythos of these new takes characters. We don’t really get a glimpse of the identities of this new batch of Cenobites and while this could function as simply a reboot, these could also be just a fresh batch who have taken over from the originals. In sort of a Halloween (2018) way, where they skip the convoluted fat directly sequeling the last good film in the series.
This film thankfully eases off the hornyness a bit of those first two films in favor of a story of a terrible person trying to save the only good person in her life. Odessa A’zion is remarkable here as the addict turned tour guide into this world, but since this is a Hellraiser film, everyone is simply here biding their time, while doing their best to leave an impression before they are torn apart by flying hook chains. The film takes some time to settle you in a bit before turning on the red stuff, while it delivers some really great practical effects setpieces for when our world splinters into the world of the Cenobites. Also Jamie Clayton’s take on the horror icon is just similar enough, while injecting some fresh blood into it to keep fans on the hook to see what happens next. Seriously she just imbues the role with its own take that still feels very close to what you’d expect from the character.
I hate that I have to note this but given the recent fan backlash about Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and The Little Mermaid of all things, you can sadly expect a lot of unwarranted “Anti-woke” backlash here as well. Not only is the Priest played by a trans woman, who literally nails it, but Riley’s brother is openly gay, and there is even an Asian and a black cenobite who are pure nightmare fuel. There’s diversity and representation here, but I think that only adds to this richness of the world and the legitimacy of it. Given how the box traveled the world and has been propelled through time by those outsiders searching for its unearthly delights, this really made sense to me that there would be different races as well as genders. This not only helped ground the film for me in our reality, but it gives those horror fans coming to the series a chance to see themselves on screen.
Hellraiser is a gore soaked great time! It delivers the expected hallmarks of the franchise fans expect — characters of questionable morality, plenty of the red stuff and pontificating Cenobites, all while updating the series attempting to infuse it with a coherent mythology. The film is also not simply content to hit the same beats of that first film, which these reboots tend to do. Instead David Bruckner forges his own path ahead and gives us the best Hellraiser film in over 3 decades and everything fans like myself have been dying to see.