Hulu’s new Hellraiser from director David Bruckner knows that the concepts of leather, latex, and pain as a source of sexual pleasure have become much more mainstream in the decades since Clive Barker’s original 1987 film first introduced the world to Pinhead. You can see that awareness reflected all over the film in its multitude of narrative updates that make this new Hellraiser feel tailor-made for our recent era of sex positivity and anxieties over how people relate to sex.
There’s quite a bit to admire about Hellraiser, particularly for those interested in testing their own limitations with consuming disturbing works of art. But in its efforts to be as beautiful as it is macabre, Hellraiser sometimes becomes almost too potent of a grotesquerie, which to be fair, may be either a feature or a bug depending on what kinda stuff you’re into.
Though it shares a handful of notable plot points with Barker’s novel The Hellbound Heart, Bruckner’s Hellraiser tells the mostly new story of a young woman named Riley (Odessa A’zion) who inadvertently unleashes chaos and pain into the lives of the people she loves most after she solves a mysterious puzzle box. The twisted sights and sadistic delights heralded by this new Lament Configuration are things that Riley, her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn), and their friends can’t begin to fathom as Hellraiser opens. But the movie presumes that it’s all familiar enough territory to its audience to warrant the briefest of glimpses at the next generation of Cenobites in an early scene that takes away some of their mystique before the main story really begins.
While Hellraiser does eventually become a horrific psychological thriller about the new exquisitely femme Pinhead (Jamie Clayton) and her fellow Cenobites terrorizing a group of unsuspecting 20-somethings, it starts on a surprisingly chaste and almost prudish note. It bothers Matt that Riley met her new boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey) at a 12-step-program. It also bothers Matt that his sister, who lives with him, and her boyfriend have zero qualms about having passionate (and very audible) sex in his apartment while he and his boyfriend Colin (Adam Faison) are trying to entertain guests.
In both the original Hellraiser and The Hellbound Heart, people’s sexualities and deep-seated desires were big parts of the animating energy driving things forward. Here, though, there’s a pronounced lack of eroticism outside of an inert sex scene between Riley and Trevor establishing how unreceptive she is to his midthrust proclamations of love. Rather than simmering sexual tensions that bubble over into otherworldly madness, Riley and Matt’s fraught relationship is the new Hellraiser’s emotional core, which would be fine were it not for the way the movie often feels like it’s trying and mostly failing to ape HBO’s Euphoria when it’s focused on them.
Hellraiser is just not all that interesting as it’s — somewhat moralistically — establishing its heroine as an impulsive woman who can’t quite get past her demons. But that all changes drastically after Riley and Trevor break into a storage container one evening in search of valuables to fence, only to find a small golden box that emits an unsettling, alluring aura.
It’s once the box has gone through its initial transformation and summoned the first of many new Cenobites that Hellraiser really starts coming alive and demonstrating how the 11th installment in a horror franchise can manage to make you sit up, in moments. If you’ve seen a Hellraiser film, then you know how the Cenobites like to get down, and each of the new movie’s gruesome murder scenes will strike you as a return to the franchise’s roots.
In each of the new Cenobites — The Chatterer (Jason Liles), The Weeper (Yinka Olorunnife), The Gasp (Selina Lo), The Asphyx (Zachary Hing), The Mother (Gorica Regodic), and The Masque (Vukašin Jovanovic) — there’s a consistent air of haute couture to their physical forms. What’s lacking in Hellraiser’s script is more than made up for by the information about the Cenobites that you can infer from the astounding detail that concept designer Keith Thompson and prosthetics artists Josh and Sierra Russell put into each character’s uniquely mutilated body.
Clayton’s Pinhead, the Hell Priest, is truly a sight to behold and a brilliantly elegant reimagining of the classic demon, with an ensemble fashioned more out of the absence of flesh rather than just scarification and skin-tight material. Hellraiser’s smartly judicious in the way it deploys Pinhead, dropping her into just enough key moments to let Clayton’s unsettlingly serene performance sing without letting you get too comfortable watching her tear people apart.
But as mesmerizing as Clayton’s Pinhead and the other Cenobites are, it’s in spite of how middling and strangely sententious the movie feels as it draws to a close. Again, different strokes will always appeal to different folks, and Hellraiser’s firing on enough cylinders to be exactly the sort of gore-fest that people are wont to watch as we roll into spooky season. But for those in search of more cerebral scares (or folks who just aren’t into torture porn as entertainment) Hellraiser should probably be approached with a little caution.
Hellraiser also stars Hiam Abbass, Goran Višnjić, and Kit Clarke. The film hits Hulu on October 7th.