David Bruckner’s remake of Hellraiser is meant to be a bloody puzzle box that reinvents the franchise, but it falls apart due to its sanitized look and flailing third act.
There are a lot of things in this world that frustrate me heavily. And as a horror fan, one of those things is modern remakes. It is disappointing to hear that some of your favorite horror films are being made again for a modern audience because, for starters, it isn’t necessary. I get that their existence is monetary, as they are horror cash cows, but you can always stick to the original. Only a select few are able to stand their ground and actually come out as very enjoyable horror pictures. However, since we are living at a time where most projects are tied to an IP of some sorts, then those films will arrive in multiple batches every few years. I become numb to it. Why? Because it is inevitable. I might get excited for them beforehand because there are talented people involved, but once I see them, they disappoint me completely. Unfortunately, these remakes are inevitable, and all the best horror pictures will be done again. This decade alone, we have seen remakes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Firestarter, The Grudge, Slumber Party Massacre, The Invisible Man, just to name a few. Most of these are terrible: though there are a few exceptions, the ratio between good and bad is very low.
This year, we are getting yet another remake of a horror classic: Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (based on the director’s novel, ‘The Hellbound Heart’), the sadomasochistic nightmare that explores curious minds, bodies, and desires. I was worried about seeing this one for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I love the original 1987 picture, and I also really enjoy its sequel Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (1988). Secondly, the rest of the franchise is in bad shape: after those initial two films, poor sequels were made one after the other. I was skeptical of what this film would be like, but David Bruckner is a good director who knows how to handle dramatic elements with horror quite well. His previous feature, The Night House, was pretty surprising and haunting, delivering effective horror set pieces through mirrorings and mirages. David Bruckner’s rendition of the Hellraiser story, simply titled like the original (in line with the new sequel-remake movement), is the best film since the first two movies. However, saying that isn’t much to suffice fans. Sure, it is better than all the other sequels, but it still feels lacking in several ways that make the original Hellraiser a classic.
Bruckner’s Hellraiser centers around Riley (Odessa A’zion), a young woman who was in rehab for almost six months because of her struggles with addiction. Those days are behind her, but her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn) is trying his best to keep her clean and out of trouble. Riley spends most of her days with her shady boyfriend, Trevor (Drew Starkey), a man she met in her twelve-step program. The audience knows he is obviously not good for her, as he casually exhorts her back into drinking and taking pills. One day, Trevor asks Riley a secretive favor: to steal the hopefully valuable treasures inside a safe at an abandoned warehouse. And it’s inside the safe that we get our first glimpse of the famous horror puzzle box, the Lament Configuration – the cubic puzzle to summon the Cenobites, extra-dimensional beings who are mutilated and brainwashed into torturing humans for all eternity in the Labyrinth. The two of them are confused about what exactly it may be, but the audience and fans of the franchise are one step ahead – we know that this will all end up in death and despair.
Riley and Trevor think about selling it, but as Riley toys with it to try and find out what it may be, a blade comes out of it. Scared out of her life, she starts seeing ghoulish creatures, known as the Cenobites, chasing her down. “The blade was meant for you. If not you, another”, one of them chants. And thus begins a downward spiral of despair where people disappear each time the box changes form, as if it was a form of sacrifice. Matt is the first victim to disappear via the box’s curse of “pleasures” and “delights”, sending Riley into a panic-induced investigation to find her brother. All clues point to famed art collector Roland Voight (Goran Visnijic), a person who once had the box in his hands. The deeper she gets into the Cenobites’ rabbit hole of misery, the more trouble Riley and her friends get into, as they are tormented by presences that they don’t know much about.
The original Hellraiser film revolves around a family of three (Larry, Julia, and Kirsty Cotton) and an intruder (Frank, Larry’s brother). It excels with its setting’s limitations, only using the Cotton’s new household without expanding onto the outer world, because it uses haunted house horror tropes with Alfred Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” analogy, which refers to giving the audience a piece of information that most of the characters ignore. In Hellraiser (1987)’s case, it’s Frank Cotton’s resurrection from under the floorboards and Julia cheating on her husband with him. This helps convey the film’s themes of fixation, manipulation, pleasure, and the loss of love in a marriage. In this remake-sequel, Bruckner doesn’t find himself trying to copy what Barker did – and rightly so, because nobody could. Instead, he wants to reinvent the franchise by expanding the lore of the puzzle box right in the middle of its story. And let me tell you, it is pretty interesting.
The movie explores the various configurations the puzzle box can make and the “gifts” that might present to the beholder once it is solved. Some of the film’s best moments rely on that exploration – the characters and audience learning more about the hexes that arise once the box has been trifled with. Each configuration means something – knowledge, resurrection, power, pleasure, and love, and this creates room for the director to explore each of them in a playful yet horrific manner. What will happen to Riley if she asks for “resurrection” in order to get her brother back? What if a man with a broken heart gets pierced by the “love” configuration? Unfortunately, Bruckner doesn’t seem interested in tying together the victims and the respective configurations they fall onto, which would have made a better and far more engaging story than the one we are offered. Instead, the director tells a story about grief, trauma, addiction, and reconciliation.
Bruckner handles those topics and dramatic elements quite well, mostly thanks to his actors, especially lead Odessa A’zion, who sharply portrays those emotions toppling down one onto the other with ease and grit. Bruckner has a good way with actors, and his recent feature is no exception, making A’zion a promising horror phenomenon if the opportunities were to arrive. Although it is hard to beat Doug Bradley’s portrayal of the lead Cenobite, Pinhead, Jamie Clayton does the character justice with an eerie portrayal of the classic horror villain. However, the one thing that the director seems to have lost his grip on is the horror elements, which are the film’s biggest disappointment.The movie feels like a concoction of mainstream horror, with its clean-cut look and formulaic structure, which unsharpens the scares and narrative. There are some profound moments of possible horror brilliance, but it ends as a disillusioning affair.
For starters, the grittiness and muck are long gone, giving the chaotic hellscape on screen a more sanitized look. Of course, there are moments of gore and blood being spilled in appreciable quantities, but it is never gross, scary, or dirty. The atmosphere in Hellraiser (1987)and Hellbound: Hellraiser II was elevated because of their constant muck and grittiness – the yuck factor was always present. In this remake, you never get that wince-inducing sensation. It doesn’t need full-blown-out scenes of violence in the way of Terrifier or Saw, but it would have benefited from a grimy look to fit its dark themes. Then there’s the matter of the Cenobites’ look and aesthetics, which feel very plastic: the film lacks the malodorous palpability and the BDSM fetishistic elements of the original costumes. The 80s punk fashion is there, but the designs are uninspired and shoddy, making it hard to take it seriously.
Bruckner justifies this remake’s existence by exploring the lore that surrounds the horrors in the film, which was the hardest challenge for him and the crew to face. However, the movie does way too little in terms of horror genre concoctions to justify its runtime. Hellraiser (2022) may have its fascinating moments, but, for the most part, it is yet another remake that doesn’t do the original justice, nor does it create intrigue for what may come.
Hellraiser is now available to watch on Hulu.