Clive Barker‘s cinematic universe didn’t quite arrive with the same instant acclaim and popularity as his fiction — most horror fans still haven’t seen Barker’s feature debut, 1985’s underwhelming Underworld (aka Transmutations) — but it burned fairly bright once audiences caught wind of his imagination. Hellraiser (1987), Nightbreed (1990), Candyman (1992), and Lord of Illusions (1995) are all genre mainstays among fans with taste, but we’ve had little to get excited about since 2008’s The Midnight Meat Train. The tide started to turn away from endless direct-to-video sequels and low budget misfires with last year’s Candyman sequel/reboot, but now, for the first time in a long time, Barker once again has such sights to show you. The new Hellraiser is a darkly beautiful and wonderfully vicious excursion into the magical abattoir of Barker’s mind.
Riley (Odessa A’zion) is an addict, struggling as all addicts are to stay a step ahead of the need pulsating through her veins. It’s a struggle she’s losing, though, and while her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn) supports her — she shares an apartment with him, his boyfriend Colin (Adam Faison), and a friend named Nora (Aoife Hinds) — she stumbles and crosses the line late one night with her boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey). The pair commit a bit of drunken larceny and steal an exquisitely designed puzzle box, but she realizes too late that her inability to resist her addiction, her boyfriend, and her curiosity has grave consequences.
The box opens a door to let otherworldly denizens in, the cenobites — once human, now walking guignols displaying unspeakable physical torments through the artistically twisted contortions of their flesh. They come to collect the one who opened the box, unless that person can provide them with another soul instead.
Director David Bruckner (The Night House, 2020) and writers Ben Collins & Luke Piotrowski (Super Dark Times, 2017) immediately stand apart from the filmmakers who churned out seven DTV Hellraiser sequels in the past two decades. Those films are cash grabs (and sometimes wholly unrelated scripts retooled to include Pinhead so they could keep the rights), but this new Hellraiser seems to be created by talents who both understand and appreciate the world that Barker first envisioned.
Barker serves as executive producer here, but his fingerprints are evident — not in a controlling way, but as a creator encouraging others to build new horrors by combining his toolset with their own. Bruckner and company wisely avoid delivering a carbon copy of what’s come before starting with their protagonist. Where Barker’s Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) is a good girl forced into a fight with threats both human and otherwise, Riley is a far more difficult and risky character. She’s arguably an unlikable person, someone whose choices have consequences reaching well beyond herself.
Hellraiser is all about the otherworldly horrors, but the script also explores the collateral damage that too often erupts from addiction. Viewers should expect to strongly dislike Riley early on, but A’zion does such fantastic work with the character that those feelings soon shift. It’s not easy, and there’s no simple switch available to her to become an instantly better person, but A’zion makes the struggle and intent palpable and cheerworthy. Her pain, the goal for so many who enter the world of the cenobites, somehow cuts deeper than the actual incisions, tears, and peels we witness being applied to others. In a film about demon-like figures collecting souls, it’s Riley’s/A’zion’s that shines the brightest.
While A’zion is the centerpiece in Hellraiser, the rest of the film’s cast is also quite good at capturing the reality of their situation at hand including Goran Visnjic as the prick who first kicks off this round of hellish hijinks. First and foremost among them, though, is Jamie Clayton as the lead cenobite, The Priest. The moniker is taken from Barker’s original novella, The Hellbound Heart, and while she resembles Doug Bradley’s Pinhead in the most obvious way, she makes this character her own. (Also, Barker himself never called the character Pinhead and never liked seeing it become character’s actual name.) She exudes terrifying power and grace equally, and along with her unholy clergy — made up of cenobites with names like The Chatterer, The Weeper, The Gasp, The Asphyx, and The Masque — she marks the arrival of an unforgettable vision. “Save your breath for screaming,” she says, and it is exquisite.
While the script allows perhaps a bit too much time over to exposition, it succeeds at creating a world of both beauty and horror. We understand the draw, particularly with people like Voight (Visnjic) who crave sadistic power, and Bruckner captures it as an artistically designed nightmare. Equally deserving of praise are cinematographer Eli Born and production designer Kathrin Eder as they manage to craft attractive visuals that can turn in an instant towards the darkness. Ben Lovett‘s score, wisely keeping Christopher Young‘s original theme while still building something fresh, completes the film’s dangerous sensory appeal.
Hellraiser is a grim and grisly feast for the senses tying lore both existing and fresh into a nightmarish journey touching on the high cost of addiction. Bruckner and company understand Barker’s vision while still delivering their own, and while the end product is maybe a bit too long, the end result is a high point in Barker’s cinematic universe.
Hellraiser premieres on Hulu starting October 7th.