Movie Review - Hellraiser (2022)
As I read the credit, I had to ask myself “What movie needs a Gender and Sexuality Consultant?”
Hellraiser totally needed one.
This is not to say that in a negative sense. There wasn’t some secret consortium to cast a trans woman as Pinhead nor any evil politically correct or diversity quota to have gay characters in the film. Put very simply, the core of the Hellraiser concept itself, its roots in BDSM and its creator himself, Clive Barker, scream that these issues need to be addressed not only within the story itself, but given the extreme nature of the concepts and what eventually ends up on screen, well, heck, I’m sure the cast and crew likely needed consultation on these matters even during filming!
There’s a lot of ground to cover here, between whether or not this is a remake, how it stacks up in the franchise, do you end up missing Doug Bradley…all the sorts of baggage you would expect with an undertaking like this: breathing fresh air into a much beloved franchise with its origins in what many consider to be horror’s heyday, the 1980s. Speaking of which, we’ll eventually take a look at this entire franchise for our Franchise Friday reviews, but in an effort to remain timely, we figured we’d take a look at this entry now! That being said, how does Hellraiser (2022) do? Well, let’s look at that after the synopsis:
Riley is trying to pull her life back together, but it’s not proving easy. With her overbearing brother Matt trying to maintain her sobriety and a fledgling relationship with someone she met in her 12-step program, she’s teetering on the verge of a relapse. When her boyfriend, Trevor, suggests robbing a warehouse to earn some extra cash and their ill-gotten gains result in the disappearance of Matt, Riley will find herself trapped in a puzzle set in motion by a recently deceased millionaire that will take her to the darkest limits of human experience and sensation, all curated by the gristly Cenobites and their head priest: Pinhead.
I usually wait until deeper in the review to address this first topic, but since the movie starts off on this note, literally, we need to talk about the music. Within the first opening moments of the film, composer Ben Lovett goes full Hans Zimmer with the BRRRAAAAAAM! BRRRAAAAAAM! BRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAM! Dude, Serbia is NOT that threatening. I mean, sure we witness an intermediary of millionaire Roland Voight procuring the fabled Lament Configuration, but no, none of that warrants a full bombardment of BRRAAAAAAAM! Thankfully, beyond this point, he tones it down some. That’s not to say we don’t have BRAAAAAAM moments in the picture, but when they emerge, the score rises to meet it and thusly, it doesn’t stick out. The score even manages to work in some of Christopher Young’s themes from the first two Hellraiser films. Thankfully, Lovett never feels a slavish devotion to them…and you may not even hear them during the bulk of the film…but as we approach the climax, their presence is unescapable and it works pretty well.
I guess the next question to address is whether or not this is a remake. No. Not really. Not at all. There are no similarities between this and the story of the 1987 original. I’d even hesitate to call it a re-invention, as that will likely bring to mind the 2001 Tim Burton Planet of the Apes…and no one really likes to be reminded of that. Instead, I liken this film to the Lament Configuration itself. The Hellraiser movies as we know them are still there, but that’s another configuration…just as this film itself is another configuration. The core concepts are here: sexuality, the exploration of sensation and its limits, the Cenobites and their lead representative/priest Pinhead. But they are different. The Cenobites no longer look like the coolest people in the goth club but instead are strangely beautiful grotesqueries where their “clothing” is simply manipulations of their own flesh. Yes, it’s a little different yet all the while still holding to the spirit of the core designs of the 87 originals and additionally, it just seems more in line with what Clive Barker might have wanted or envisioned in the first place.
So now, let’s talk about Pinhead. I feel like the topic deserves its own paragraph. Now, people who have read the books have stated that Barker never really identifies the gender of any of the Cenobites, much less their lead priest. If true, then female casting or no, it shouldn’t matter. The line starts out as blurred to begin with, as you’d expect from Barker being a gay man himself…gender trappings and moors simply don’t apply in this work. But to cast a trans-woman? Fucking genius mate. The very embodiment of the blurred line…the head priest of a race that manipulates flesh to manifest their identity, utterly fantastic idea. And thankfully, this isn’t any kind of stunt-casting…Jamie Clayton totally brings it. While she doesn’t mimic Doug Bradley in any way, she retains the detached menace that he came to embody. She’s excellent at maintaining the atmosphere, just as her classic predecessor did, that when Pinhead appears, shit just got real. Clayton proves to be not only capable but worthy of carrying on the torch of the unique horror icon of the 80s. Here, just as then, Pinhead isn’t a slasher. She doesn’t actively hunt you. You’re the one that calls out. You’re the one that, on some level…even if it’s buried…is interested in what she is offering. And, just like in at least the first two films (the only ones I’ve watched), Pinhead doesn’t necessarily get a lot of screen time here. Yet Clayton, like Bradley before her, knows exactly how to make them count and make them memorable. In the hands of a lesser actor, this icon would have been tarnished, but definitely not so here…and that’s very much to her credit. To wrap up this paragraph, do you end up missing Doug Bradley? Look, I’ll always welcome another appearance by Doug in the make-up and role that made him famous, but here, in this film? Nope. Not at all.
What about the rest of the cast? Let’s start with our protagonist, Riley, played by Odessa A’zion. Going into the film, she was kind of my biggest question mark here. I’d seen some reviews that were positive toward her performance, others negative. Some suggested that the character wasn’t exactly likeable. I found that I came down on the positive side of things. The introduction to her is a little rough, but as we progress through the movie, we see her grow in ways that none of her friends, family or, apparently some audience members, didn’t think possible and certainly didn’t anticipate. In some ways, it feels like we start the movie with no one (except maybe Colin…who we’ll get to in a bit) having any faith in her even though there is a little bit of a spark. Sure, we do see her stumble a bit in her arc, but just like in real life, that’s to be expected, especially under dire circumstances…which the events of the film would certainly qualify. Her brother, Matt, played by Brandon Flynn is, in no uncertain terms, a douchebag. He certainly ratchets up the martyr complex up to 1000 here and once he goes missing, well, I know I was extremely glad for it. It’s a weird feeling, you want Riley to succeed in her quest to get him back but at the same time…no…not really, because that would only bring this schmuck back into the film’s proceedings and I definitely didn’t want that! For as much as I didn’t like the character, that’s in no way a statement to Flynn’s portrayal. Almost the opposite, as the hallmark of a good performance is that the audience has a strong emotional response to the character being played. Another character you’ll be cheering for their untimely demise is Riley’s boyfriend Trevor, played by Drew Starkey. Right off the bat, we get kind of a skeevy feel to Trevor and as the film goes on we’re kind of proven right given some of his seedy actions. That in and of itself won’t have you cheering for Trev’s demise though. No, Trev ends up being the horror movie trope of the person that’s so in over their head that they’re going to drag everyone else into dying along with them due to the sheer weight of their stupidity. His terrible driving and his attempt to steal the Lament Configuration are just two examples of him flashing his ‘mouth-breathers’ club card. Lastly, we have Colin, Matt’s partner and seemingly the only person in the film that has any faith in Riley, played by Adam Faison…and he proves to be the antithesis to both Matt and Trevor. I was actively cheering for him to see the end credits, if for no other reason in that he’d get to see that his faith in our main character was warranted after all. He’s not perfect though, as yes, he’s very aware he’s out of his depth and that does sometimes prove to be an obstacle to the rest of the group, but it’s more benevolent in nature, as opposed to Trevor’s malignant idiocy.
For as good as this film is, I did have a couple of issues with it. While the film starts in Serbia, we quickly see the scene switch to Massachusetts. Except…do we? I mean, we’re told it is…but from the streets to the buildings and just the vibe (take the playground from early in the movie for example), it feels way to European to be any city in the U.S. I mean, watching the credits, it’s extremely obvious that the film was indeed shot in Serbia but I’m nearly certain that the production never stepped foot in New England. My second complaint about the film springs forth from this. Sure, it’s certainly a valid argument that many American films these days look overproduced: too many computer-generated special effects, picture quality that’s too clear and as such can betray these effects, making everything look a little waxy or plasticy. Hellraiser suffers from the exact opposite, the film quality feels underproduced. It’s just a touch too grainy and something about the motion feels off. In some ways, it very much feels like an original movie made by the BBC where, sure, there’s nothing wrong with it, but at the same time it feels cheaper than a Hollywood production. I guess on one hand, I get it – this was likely a low-budget affair. Hellraiser films have been direct-to-video- for the bulk of the series, with each successive production being a far cry from the franchise’s peak around the second and third films in the 90s. But ultimately, this is a Disney production (as they own both Hulu and Dimension Films previous holders of the license to the franchise) and with the billions at their beck and call, you’d think they could’ve upped the budget some to give it the needed polish.
As we enter into the summation, I’ll reveal my third nit-pick on this newest entry in the Hellraiser series: it should’ve been in theaters. I mean, I get it, this series has been circling the drain for quite a while now, but as we’ve seen with David Gordon Green’s Halloween revival, when reboots get it right, they get rewarded at the box office. And let me be very clear, director David Bruckner got his version of Hellraiser very, very right. This would have been fun to see in the theater with a group of people, but alas. I can only hope that there are additional stories in this configuration of the franchise and, most importantly, the quality remains this high. While held back from perfection due to some technical issues and sights that just don’t line up with the ‘setting’, Hellraiser (2022) absolutely nails not only the heart and intent of Clive Barker’s work but also rockets the franchise back up to where it belongs…and that’s worthy of a high-end Happy Cat. As Pinhead says, “We have such sights to show you”. Indeed they do.