Saturday, October 22, 2022

Review: Hellraiser (2022)


I'm a massive fan of Clive Barker and his work ... from the moment those first Books of Blood were published I was hooked on his imagery and sheer imaginative skill in spinning tales.

One of his first novellas was called 'The Hellbound Heart', and Clive adapted it himself into the screenplay for his debut directorial feature, a little horror film called Hellraiser way back in 1987 ... and the rest is history.

That original story laid the background and the groundwork for the Hellraiser mythos. That there were mysterious puzzle boxes scattered over the Earth, which could be obtained for a price ... Those who sought them were looking for the ultimate pleasure, the borderline between pleasure and pain, and the boxes promised this. However in truth, the boxes summoned demons from Hell, travellers in the paths of ecstasy and torment called Cenobites, who had used and scarified their own bodies in pursuit of the ultimate in sensation. They were masochists and sadists who offered the ultimate in pleasure, but at a cost. And opening the box summoned them ... and they would then take their victim with them when they returned.

The story followed Kirsty, who discovered that her stepfather Frank had been taken by the Cenobites, but that he was now trying to return to the world using her stepmother Julia to procure victims and blood to feed his revival. Frank will let nothing stop him, even taking his own brother's skin as part of his attempt to outwit the Cenobites.

In the story, it is really Frank and Julia who are the monsters, and yet it was the Cenobites, led by the regal priest, colloquially termed 'Pinhead' as his head was covered in pins, hammered into his skull in a geometric design, who grasped the imagination. A new cabal of original monsters, poised to take you to the edge of sensation, and then beyond into a hell of their own devising.

That original film is a masterpiece of imagery and horror. Nothing quite like it had been seen before, and it spawned two direct-ish sequels (Hellbound: Hellraiser II and Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth), and then a plethora of franchise spin-offs which steadily descended into the dreadful as the studio tried to make the ideas work for them. Sadly some of the scripts started life as non-Hellraiser projects and were then co-opted to try and make them work ... and it showed!

Now, in 2022, we have another Hellraiser ... and this is billed as just Hellraiser again, reportedly rebooting and restarting the franchise once more. Unfortunately, it doesn't really do that, and it's so distant from the plot of 'The Hellbound Heart' that it might as well have been assigned number 11 in the series!

The new production is very much a film of two halves. The first half feels like another of those random horrors where the Hellraiser mythos has been added to try and sell the script. A girl, Riley (Odessa A'zion), is a recovering addict (a trait which could have been used as part of the plot but isn't) living with her gay brother Matt (Brandon Flynn), his boyfriend Colin (Adam Faison) and a roommate Nora (Aoife Hinds). Riley and her boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey) randomly break into a storage warehouse and find a puzzle box. Riley opens the box which makes a blade emerge, but she manages not to get cut by it. This summons the Cenobites who want her to choose another as a sacrifice ... Matt ends up being cut by the blade and is taken to Hell.

Riley and Trevor track down the warehouse to a man named Roland Voight (Goran Višnjić), who we saw in a prologue sacrificing another innocent kid to the Cenobites. They head to his abandoned house which has been set up with protective gratings in a very 'puzzle box' like configuration (though this idea seems to be abandoned/forgotten and they act just like normal protective gratings).

Riley finds Voight's notebooks and finds out the history behind the box and the Cenobites ... noting that victims need to be pricked by the blades for them to be taken!

This sets everything up for the endgame where the humans take refuge in the house while the Cenobites attack from outside ... and this second half of the film feels much more like a Hellraiser film ...

I don't want to give too much away, as there are some lovely visuals in the film. There are new Cenobites to 'enjoy' too, which continue the idea that these people have done these things to themselves in order to feel pain/pleasure ... however there is a rather nasty undercurrent of torture porn where the kids are taken and basically tortured by the Cenobites, and they never asked or wanted this to happen at all - they didn't even open the box! ... it's somewhat at odds with the themes of the original novella and film.

The Priest (Jamie Clayton), better known as 'Pinhead', here has been reimagined as female, but with a deep voice which gives for an interesting impact, and the character works well - providing a still point in all the horror and torment for some discussion of what motivates the creatures to do what they do ...

What is sadly lost for the most part is that people seek out the boxes for that ultimate pleasure. Who can forget the scene in the original Hellraiser where Frank in Larry's skin is literally pulled apart by chains ... and before which he licks his lips in pleasure and utters the classic line 'Jesus wept!' at the sheer overload of pleasure in what is happening to him.

In this new film, the Frank/Larry role is taken by Voight, who has a Cenobotic torture instrument attached to him which plays with his nerves, taking him to the brink of pleasure/pain every few minutes. He is after the ultimate experience, and indeed by the end of the film, he has achieved his desire.

So this new Hellraiser is an uneasy mix of unrelated teen stuff, mixed with a pot pourrie of ideas harvested from the first and second Hellraiser films. It misses out on the main theme of pleasure/pain in favour of making the Cenobites more generic monsters who will chase you and kill you (or in the case of the Chatterer, gnaw you to death!) which is a great shame and somewhat cheapens their initial concept and origin.

There's a really nice central idea with the puzzle box where it takes a variety of configurations and each means something different ... this could have been the central core of the film, perhaps where Riley has to outwit a different Cenobite each time, each geared towards providing a specifically 'Hell' themed interpretation of what the pleasure/pain/sensation divide was. It's a shame that the idea of the house also being a box was not developed, but then the house does seem a little like that in 13 Ghosts as it is ... so perhaps it was for the best.

Overall I felt that this was something of a missed opportunity. Pinhead arrives far too late on the scene, but the new look and styling works. The other Cenobites (Jason Liles as the Chatterer - aside from 'Pinhead' the only returning creature from the original films, Yinka Olorunnife as the Weeper, Zachary Hing as the Asphyx, Selina Lo as the Gasp, and Vukasin Jovanovic as the Masque) are interesting, though in some cases it's hard to see quite what has been 'done' to them which somewhat reduces their impact. They have names in the credits but there's little in the film to understand which is which and why they are called that. I loved the 'room re-configuration' effects which were very well done as the portal to hell opens to allow the Cenobites ingress. When the back of a moving van undergoes the same process, this was exactly the sort of imaginative reworking which was needed.

The new film reuses some of Christopher Young's melodies and scores for the first two films. A strange choice I felt, but it works even if it highlights how great Young's work was compared with the new compositions for this film.

Ultimately it's the lack of an actual plot which holds this new version back. There's a lot of stuff happens, and it's overcomplex, but there seems little narratively to hold it all together. The idea that the box needs to take the blood of the next 'victim', willing or not, and whether human or not, is a new one, and the film should have made more of the rich mythos that it was mining rather than trying to insert new themes into the mix.

Not bad as a horror film, but disappointing as a Hellraiser reboot.