Whispers surrounding a remake of gruesome 1987 franchise-starter Hellraiser have been haunting Hollywood now for 15 years, indicative not just of how generally onerous these things can be to get off the ground but also of a certain tone that feels so other in today’s horror landscape. The original, based on Clive Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart, was a nasty little nightmare steeped in hokey lore yet taken with stone-faced seriousness, a tale of sadomasochistic monsters using a puzzle box to torture curious minds and bodies. While the genre might be more prolific and profitable now than it was back then or arguably ever has been, it’s also deceptively restrictive, audiences rushing out only to see a limited set of boogeymen do a limited set of horrible things.
Something like Hellraiser has become the kind of hard R-rated horror that’s been relegated to the outer limits, the niche genre-only streaming services that put fandom first and everyone else last. It’s curious then to see the reimagining pop up on Disney-owned Hulu with a robust budget and glossy sheen, and even curiouser to find that it’s just as gory and just as committed to its unhinged world-building as the films that have come before. It doesn’t always work, and at times it really really doesn’t, but it feels confident and unfettered in a way that so many horror films don’t these days.
Director David Bruckner’s last offering, the Rebecca Hall-led supernatural thriller The Night House, acted as a nifty audition tape, stylish and sleek and similarly trapped in-between two worlds – one we live in and one we don’t ever want to live in – and like that film, it’s often something that’s more interesting to look at than to listen to. This time his tortured female protagonist is Riley (Odessa A’zion, daughter of Pamela Adlon and sister of Gideon Adlon, also suffering this year in pandemic horror Sick), recently out of rehab and struggling to put her addictions behind her. After helping shady boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey) steal a mysterious package, she finds herself in possession of en elegantly designed puzzle box, one that proceeds to drag her and those around into a hellish game.
Any understandable concerns over how hard Bruckner would go with the franchise’s trademark gore are immediately, brutally laid to rest in a jolting – and revolting – cold open that sees Goran Visnjic’s demented millionaire and his helper, played by an always welcome Hiam Abbass, lure a sex party twink (the film is refreshingly casual about queerness) into a different kind of sin of the flesh. As mainstream as its platform might be, Hellraiser is still going to repel a large portion of its audience with its emphasis on the exquisite sensation of extreme pain, bodies pushed to their limits, skin flayed open and insides forced onto the outside. For the rest of us, it’s all horribly well-orchestrated, an inventively devious provocation that tears and skewers and slices its surprisingly competent young cast with gusto.
But while the violent acts themselves are effectively jarring, those behind them often less so. The cenobites – the fetishistic extra-dimensional beings who see pleasure as excruciating pain – were never going to be easy to drag into the now, their aesthetic tied to 80s punk fashion, but still, the creature design here can be disappointingly shoddy, recalling the laughable late-night lows of 2001’s Thirteen Ghosts remake. Some of the more plasticky costumes then take us out of the terror in front of us, as if we’re at a schlocky horror convention rather than in a serious horror film. Pinhead, played by Jamie Clayton, is slightly more effective than her lackeys but never quite reaches Doug Bradley’s admittedly hard-to-touch OG. What’s that much stranger about the is-this-the-best-you-can-do monsters is that they’re in a film that’s otherwise beautifully constructed; atmospheric and polished, made on a scale and with an imagination we just don’t get to see that much any more.
While the protagonist’s dual trauma narrative might be a little over-familiar in the era of “elevated” horror, Adlon is a smart actor who plays it with earnestness and grit, as if she were starring in a drama about addiction that just happened to devolve into bone-snapping, body-severing carnage. At two hours, Hellraiser raises a little too much hell for the genre, never finding enough juice, or blood, to justify a wildly indulgent runtime. What Bruckner does justify, however, is the sheer existence of his remake, an extremely hard thing to do, with enough visual verve and stomach-turning sadism to satiate the Halloween crowd. It’s unusual to see a film that’s not for everyone made as if it could be, as gross as it is grand, hell for most but heaven for some.