Pain, pleasure…passé? Perfunctory Hellraiser reboot is Well-Made Yet Fails to Deliver Scares

The new Hellraiser has its share of talent behind and in front of the camera, yet is missing something crucial: genuine scares.

5 mins read

The new Hellraiser, a Hulu-premiering reboot directed by David Brucker (who helmed last year’s superb The Night House), has its share of talent behind and in front of the camera and a so-so creep factor, yet is missing something crucial: genuine scares. 

As with all successful horror franchises of the last half century, their mythologies’ calling cards are always the villains: Michael, Jason and Freddy are the standard bearers of their respective series even if no one quite remembers their victims. And in 1987’s original Hellraiser, written and directed by Clive Barker and based on his novella The Hellbound Heart, we met a dastardly collection of villains named the Cenobites, alternate dimension dwelling beings from hell that could only be released via an ancient, elaborate puzzle box, the solver facing eternal torture and damnation. 

Barker’s original was an instant classic, a low budget epic of sexual deviance, gory murder, human reanimation and hellish retribution. It also had a terrifying villain in its lead Cenobite named Pinhead, immediately legendary in horror circles, played across that picture and its several lesser-than sequels by the great Doug Bradley, a villainous marauder whose mere visage, focus and shivery vocal command were nightmare-inducing. 

Bradley is not on hand for Brucker’s new picture, instead placed by actress Jamie Clayton (apparently “truer to the novella”), and while Clayton at times cuts a mean looking line through the picture, her Pinhead and fellow Cenobites feel slightly less intimidating in a film that struggles to find momentum before finishing strong with some well-conceived special effects.

From a screenplay by his The Night House collaborators Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, Brucker delivers a handsome picture that features all the usual series elements—unsuspecting puzzle solver, the return of the Cenobites, extravagant set pieces and the usual torture—but this time, it all feels a bit rudimentary. Picture opens with recovering addict Riley (Odessa A’zion) and rehab beau Trevor (Drew Starkey) stealing a mysterious, precious cargo, the notorious “lament configuration” puzzle box.

The box itself is a terrifically imaginative creation, sort of a demented Rubik’s Cube which can be “solved” by a series of rotations, and which also contains a spike that draws blood from human flesh, which in turns summons the Cenobites, a deadly crew led by the philosophical Hell Priest/Pinhead (Clayton), waxing on about sacrifice, pleasure, pain, other dimensions, etc. When Riley’s estranged brother Matt (Brandon Flynn) is inadvertently spirited into the Cenobites’ dimension, she attempts to retrieve him. They key to this lies with Croatian actor Goran Visnjic as a perverse magnate who has quite a history with the vicious supervillains.

On the plus side, Brucker’s good looking picture features beautiful widescreen compositions courtesy of cinematographer Eli Born, a richly dark score by Ben Lovett (appropriating Christopher Young’s now classic original compositions) and plenty of effective practical special effects, which serve the film nicely during its final and best reel. And it’s a treat to see the wonderful Palestinian actress and director Hiam Abbaas (The Visitor, Succession) turn up, offering answers to the puzzle box’s horrors.

Yet at nearly two hours, this outing is overlong and frequently loses momentum during a protracted first half. It also adds little new to the Hellraiser canon except perhaps additional Cenobites, which this time do not feel all that threatening (Clayton’s digitally enhanced, androgynous-sounding voice is intriguing; not sure how threatening). Certainly they are well-designed, costumed and photographed, but the series’ darker and grislier dimensions, which typically include a cocktail of sin, depravity and punishment, seem somewhat lower stakes this time, despite the high-gloss, pro treatment.

This Hellraiser may be acceptable and even exciting in its final act, but unlike Bruckner’s terrifying The Night House, with its gripping Rebecca Hall performance and hair-raising supernatural shocks, it simply isn’t that scary.

2 stars.

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