New Hellraiser is stylishly gut-wrenching, but lacks substance overall
Horror franchises, even more than ones featuring superheroes, action stars, or animated characters, have proved themselves to be eternal. No matter how many times a villain or monster is bested by the hero of the film, filmmakers find a way to bring them back to try to wring more scares out of their presence.
The original Hellraiser came out in 1987 and was followed by nine sequels, including one as recent as 2018. But everything old is new again, and so now we get the reboot. An opening sequence reintroduces the series’ central device, a puzzle box that stabs unwitting users, thereby summoning horrific figures known as Cenobites to inflict torturous pain on those who’ve been stabbed.
Cut to a few years later and a group of young people are ensnared by the puzzle box’s allure, including the central figure Riley (Odessa A’zion), an addict who lives with her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn) and roommate Nora (Aoife Hinds). Riley’s boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey) convinces her to help him steal things from a warehouse, inadvertently bringing the puzzle into their lives. When Riley tries solve the puzzle, all hell is unleashed on the group.
Directed by David Bruckner and written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, the film is a stylish yet mostly empty demonstration of gruesomeness. The Cenobites – who go by names like The Priest (aka Pinhead), The Chatterer, and The Weeper – are freaky-looking creatures with all manner of flayed flesh and painful piercings. Their mere presence and supernatural ability to grab victims by chains and hooks is scary, but an actual reason for why they keep procuring more targets is lacking.
The story is hit-and-miss, with the main group alternating between heroic, stupid, or heroically stupid decision-making. Riley seems to be a person who’s unreliable at best, yet person after person tries to intervene on her behalf, a loyalty that is left unexplored in the film. While the way Riley and the others eventually fight back against the Cenobites makes sense, the scenes featuring those fights are uninspiring.
The most interesting aspect of the film is the one that is explored the least. A mysterious man named Voight (Goran Visnjic) is introduced in the opening sequence, reappearing in the film’s final act. He has a particular connection to the puzzle box and Cenobites that makes him half villain/half victim, one which could have been fleshed out a bit more to make him less one-dimensional.
A’zion, who kind of looks like Alia Shawkat, makes for an unusual protagonist. She’s not that expressive, so the audience really has to dig deep to empathize with her character. The other members of the group are also generic, never bringing anything that makes you want to care about them more. The actors playing the Cenobites are good, although the makeup does half the job for them.
This reboot of Hellraiser is the classic example of style over substance. Much effort was made into making the film look as good as possible, but the story fails on multiple levels, making all of those visuals in service of very little.
Hellraiser debuts exclusively on Hulu on October 7.