Hulu’s Hellraiser is the 11th film in a series that dates back to the 1987 original directed by Clive Barker, who adapted that script from his novella. Since then, the franchise has suffered a noticeable drop in quality; this new entry from director David Bruckner (The Night House) aims to restore it to gory glory, but doesn’t quite succeed.
Most of the complaints that stand to be leveled at the new Hellraiser—the latest in the current trend of naming new, “elevated” installments in long-running series the same thing as the first film in that series, like Halloween and Scream—have to do with its characters and story. The production values are certainly superior to the straight-to-video sequels that have been the Hellraiser norm since the early 2000s, with slick CG that enhances the design of the series’ signature diabolical puzzle box, as well as the movie’s main setting: a mansion that’s been created in the puzzle box’s image. CG also steps in to assist with Hellraiser’s gruesome moments (a necessary component for a franchise revolving around demonic creatures who derive pleasure from inflicting pain), though the movie’s cinematography is generally so dark its blood splatters are often closer to black than vivid red.
The script by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (The Night House), with a story assist by David S. Goyer (the Blade and Dark Knight trilogies), introduces us to protagonist Riley (Grand Army’s Odessa A’zion) at what feels like a rock-bottom moment. But things only get worse for the relapsing addict—who’s constantly fighting with her rightfully concerned brother, Matt (13 Reasons Why’s Brandon Flynn)—when she agrees to help her sorta-boyfriend, Trever (Outer Banks’ Drew Starkey), rob a warehouse he says contains a crate of unclaimed “billionaire shit.” We’ve already been introduced to both the billionaire, Voight (The Boys’ Goran Visnjic), and the mysterious item in the crate (you’ll never guess) in a prologue that reminds us that Hellraiser is about a mystical puzzle box you’re better off never touching, as well as never being anywhere near anyone else who touches it.
Naturally, it doesn’t take long for a booze-and-pill-addled Riley to grope her new toy in just the right way to activate its powers, awaken the Cenobites (including the film’s new interpretation of iconic Hellraiser villain Pinhead, played by Jamie Clayton), and see everyone in her orbit affected by the device’s need to feed. This film’s approach to Hellraiser lore puts a stronger emphasis on the Cenobites and the box than other recent entries; Riley quickly learns that every time the box claims a new victim, it changes shape, something it will do a set number of times before reaching its final configuration. As we saw in the prologue with Voight, whoever has possession of the box at that time gets to claim a special prize from the Cenobites—though as anyone who’s ever watched a Hellraiser movie before will already know, you should never make deals with demons, especially ones that derive erotic thrills from torturing human bodies and souls.
The box’s body-count quota gives the story a ticking-clock quality that helps move it along, but also makes it feel a lot like a conventional slasher, with victims being picked off one by one in an order that feels obvious (sorry, Matt’s roommate who has a first name and zero characterization beyond that—you’re definitely doomed). Riley may be one of the least likable final girls in recent memory; she’s already dragging her brother and her friends down even before she gets entangled with the Cenobites, and there’s a weary “here we go again” energy as they rush to help her with her latest mess, which just so happens to be dangerously supernatural. It leads to a conclusion so bleak you almost have to applaud it for its commitment to sheer nihilism.
If you’re looking for any shred of fun—well, your best bet is to watch the season five Rick and Morty episode that had a blast eviscerating the Hellraiser demons’ “pain is pleasure” philosophy. Even with all her pins and peeled-back flesh (the design of the Cenobites here leans less on black latex, and more on artful skin flaying), Clayton makes for a surprisingly elegant ringleader, with vocal effects enhancing her delivery of lines like “There is so much more the body can be made to feel, and you’ll feel it all before we’re through.” It’s meant to be menacing but can’t help but feel campy, even in the context of a movie that seems to be taking itself too seriously throughout. And while casting a woman to play Pinhead—a character originated by the great Doug Bradley—grabbed headlines when it was announced, the Cenobites have always been pretty genderless, and the change makes no difference whatsoever in the story.
And that’s kind of the overall feeling this Hellraiser leaves you with: a bit of a shrug. The movie’s not bad, and it’s not going to embarrass the franchise like its more rock-bottom entries do. But it doesn’t bring enough new to the table to make you understand why it was made in the first place.
Hellraiser arrives on Hulu October 7.
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