I should preface this by stating that I’ve only ever seen the first Hellraiser film when I reviewed it for a birthday project ten freaking years ago. I have no other exposure to the franchise, nothing else to base this review on. This is mostly because I knew from reputation that the sequels only decreased in quality over the years and I had no interest in seeing the first film’s ideas and themes diluted.

So here we are with Hellraiser (2022) — just in time for the franchise’s 35th anniversary — produced by Clive Barker himself in an attempt at getting back to basics with some new blood. In this case, the new blood includes writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, co-writer/producer David S. Goyer, and director David Bruckner, all of whom previously collaborated on the underappreciated The Night House. Rather odd that an atmospheric ghost story without much in the way of graphic violence convinced Clive Barker that these were the filmmakers to reboot an iconic body horror franchise, but here we are.

For the crowning touch, we’ve got Jamie Clayton (previously best known as a lead on “Sense8”) picking up the torch from Doug Bradley as the new face of the franchise. Yes, we’ve got a sexy new female Pinhead, except that she’s been put under so much makeup and voice modulation that she’s barely recognizable as female or sexy (we’ll come back to that), and she’s now credited as “The Priest.”

So what have we got?

Our protagonist/final girl for the evening is Riley McKendry, played by Odessa A’zion. She’s a recovering drug addict who can’t find a job with a living wage, her brother (Matt, played by Brandon Flynn) is constantly on the verge of losing patience and kicking her out of his apartment, and she can’t seem to have a good time without drugs or alcohol, so she fills the void by bringing random one-night stands to the apartment. Her latest fling is Trevor (Drew Starkey), who comes to Riley with a plot to get some much-needed cash by breaking open an unattended shipping crate.

Surprise surprise, the loot turns out to be the Lament Configuration. Long story short, Riley solves the puzzle box, but narrowly avoids getting taken by the Cenobites. Upset at getting cheated like this, the Cenobites decide to take Riley’s brother instead. Thus Riley and her friends set out to get some answers and rescue Matt.

I take some issue with the basic premise of the film.

To my understanding, a significant part of what makes the Cenobites special is that they operate by way of temptation. They offer sensations beyond anything the mortal world can offer, who’s tempted to take them up on that? They drop a puzzle box into our laps, who will be tempted to solve it? The puzzle box is a highly coveted item, sold for fortunes and guarded with the utmost care, who will be tempted to steal it?

Furthermore, the Cenobites see no distinction between pain and pleasure, thus their brand of excruciating pain is seen by them as a divine gift. By definition, a gift must be requested. At the very least, a gift can’t be forced onto somebody, that defeats the point entirely. Even if it’s a gift that the recipient is tricked into requesting, that’s nowhere near the same as outright forcing it unto someone with no provocation.

But here, the Cenobites are explicitly seen singling out Matt — unwitting, unwilling, totally and completely oblivious Matt — to be a part of this. What’s worse, as the plot unfolds, the Cenobites outright insist on the mortal characters offering up other people as sacrifices to be ripped apart by hooks and chains. All of this runs entirely counter to everything that makes the Cenobites unique.

Granted, there is an attempt at justifying this, arguing that the Cenobites are all about excess, so of course they want more and more victims to slake their bottomless lust. The problem I keep coming back to is that as soon as the Cenobites personally select and hunt down their unwitting victims, they’re just another horror monster. I hasten to add that there’s a third-act plot twist, revealing that certain mortal humans were the villains all along and the Cenobites were simply doing as they were made to function. All well and good. However, if the Cenobites really think they’re offering some kind of grand divine gift by way of dismemberment, why are they allowing mortal humans to decide who’s worthy of being granted such a bounty?

To wit: In the original film, Frank escaped the Cenobites — as Riley did — but he alone was hunted down and made to suffer for it. What’s more, Frank was the real slasher of the original film, hunting down victims for his own personal gain. The Cenobites never gave him the power to let him choose the victim so the Cenobites could do all the dirty work, because that arrangement would be fucking stupid. But I guess that’s how we’re doing things in the reboot because the Cenobites are the iconic core of the franchise and we’d all rather see fantastic body horror as opposed to some generic axe murderer.

Moving on to our final girl, there was real potential here in the notion of a recovering drug addict as our protagonist. Especially a drug addict who keeps relapsing, who keeps struggling to fill the void in her life that can’t be filled through legal or socially acceptable means, who seems fundamentally incapable of overcoming every obstacle in her path to build a decent life for herself. Just imagine if the Cenobites ever offered her the chance to check out of society completely and give in to their own unique brand of sweet oblivion. But nothing is ever done with this, and that’s a damn shame.

That said, major points are due for sticking to the concept that while the Cenobites can’t be outrun or overpowered, they can be outmaneuvered. The Cenobites play by specific rules, they make specific threats, and they can always be counted on to do exactly what they say they’re going to do. They can bend the rules, and they can deliver on promises in unwelcome and unexpected ways, but they never outright break their rules or promises. This means that our lead characters can outsmart the Cenobites by using their own rules against them, and that’s always immensely satisfying.

Perhaps most importantly, the Cenobites are all about exploring new frontiers of sensation, be it joy and arousal or pain and suffering. This is relevant because Riley is made to suffer in a big way, starting with the abduction and possible death of her brother. So either Riley is wracked with lifelong guilt after failing to save her brother, Riley is elated at bringing him back alive and whole, or Riley is set for lifelong torment after the Cenobites revive him as some inhuman beast. No matter how this story ends, the Cenobites win. I don’t know if that was necessarily the whole point of kidnapping Matt, and the movie could’ve made a much bigger point out of that if it was, but all the same, wow.

Of course the Cenobites are the main attraction here, and their designs are nicely grotesque. Kudos are also due for some truly graphic kills and torture sequences. The filmmakers did not skimp on the blood, and I commend them for that. I must also give praise for mixing CGI effects with practical makeup effects in a way that looks beautifully seamless.

And what of our new Priest? Well, Jamie Clayton is suitably unnerving as the voice of the Cenobites. Granted, the makeup, costume, and voice modulation are doing a lot of work for her, but Clayton still brings the kind of foreboding, immovable, statuesque presence that made Doug Bradley so iconic in the role. More importantly, as monstrous and visibly inhuman as the Priest so clearly is, there’s still a warped kind of seductive quality to the character that fits the Cenobites’ brand to a T.

As for the human cast… well, they’re passable. Odessa A’zion anchors the film capably, and Goran Visnjic leaves a significant impression with so little runtime. Everyone else, I could take or leave. I’m guessing the effects budget took up so much money that there wasn’t much left to pay the cast, and that would’ve been a factor. Even so, pretty much all of the mortal human characters are so thin and underdeveloped, introduced solely to serve as cannon fodder, I don’t know if even the most A-list talent would’ve been enough to salvage them.

Hellraiser (2022) has its flaws, but I simply must commend the film for accomplishing what it set out to do. It does a fine job of world-building, with lots of great exposition about the puzzle box and the Cenobites without slowing down the pacing or getting in the way of some really slick body horror. We even got some neat twists and some genuinely clever turns in the third act. While I wasn’t terribly impressed with the cast overall, none of the actors are anywhere near bad enough to weigh the film down.

It’s such a damn shame the entire second act settles for going through the motions of a by-the-numbers monster horror when it could’ve been so much more. That said, I can’t judge the film we didn’t get, only the film we got. And what we got was a perfectly serviceable reboot that elegantly updates the franchise for a new generation. Plus, the ease and cost of a direct-to-streaming release makes this an easy recommendation.

Even in such a year as this, crowded with so many excellent horror films, this one is worth checking out.

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