It used to be that Hellraiser movies went straight to VHS. Now they go straight to Hulu. Most entries in the decades-running cosmic horror franchise are remembered as late-night, ill-advised video store rentals, the kinds of disposable novelty horrors you’d squeeze in between viewings of titles like Ice Cream Man & Dr Giggles. In 2022, the series has been upgraded to prestige television instead, with David Bruckner’s Hellraiser playing like the HBO series version of Clive Barker’s Hellbound Heart. The new Hellraiser is unrushed, low-lit, and plotty. It’s shot in the same bespoke-leather browns as Nü Gössïp Gïrl, offering the same post-CW melodrama as this year’s The Batman. It might be television, but it’s at least high-quality television, which means it eventually reaches some euphoric highs once it’s done wrapping up an overlong prologue – like that new show your coworker insists gets great three seasons in if you just stick with it.
Hellraiser achieves a gruesome delirium once it fully lets loose, so it’s a shame all the elaborately gnarly images from its final half hour are in service of such an overall restrained, somber drama. It could have been a real stunner if it just lightened up a bit, both literally & figuratively. Considering that Bruckner’s previous films The Ritual & The Night House weren’t exactly lighthearted romps either, it’s clear he delivered exactly what he was hired to here, so it might just be an awkward pairing of auteur & source material. Bruckner continues his participation in the modern Metaphor Horror trend with a story of a recovering drug addict whose illness drags her friends & family into a symbolic hellworld. Instead of being drawn to the Hell Priest’s puzzle box as a painful gateway to horny transcendence, she sees it as an easy score to pawn off for drug money and, later, as a weapon to be wielded against the fake friends & BDSM demons it unleashes. I’m not sure what the point of making a Hellraiser film is if you’re not interested in the ways prurient desire and the overlap of pain & sexual pleasure can lead to personal destruction, but I guess Bruckner fills the time well enough with his own preoccupations with Trauma Metaphors and expansion of the puzzle box’s “Lament Configurations” lore.
After a full hour of place-setting & narrative justification, the new Hellraiser finally reconfigures into its best self: a haunted house free-for-all. While the original 1987 picture is a domestic melodrama that mostly plays out in a cramped attic, Bruckner sets his cenobites loose in a gigantic Eyes Wide Shut mansion, with plenty of darkened corners for the freaky little fuckers to hide behind. All of the new cenobites are exquisitely designed; Jamie Clayton is a stunning presence as Nü Pïnhead; and there are enough “degloving events” to gross out even the most jaded gore hounds. You just have to push past a lot of modern muck to get there, from the sexless, humorless addiction metaphor at its core to the eye-scorchingly bright ad breaks that violently disrupt its murky prologue. This might be the best Hellraiser movie in decades, but it’s just as indicative of the worst horror trends of its time as the direct-to-video sequels that feature cenobites growing camcorders & CD players on their heads. The industry just happens to be in a good enough place right now that television-level mediocrity is still relatively top-notch.
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