Brant Lewis says the latest Hellraiser is a successful reimagining of the franchise modernizing the story while keeping its essential queerness.
Clive Barker's classic Hellraiser (1987) stands as a seminal work of queer horror that became bogged down by numerous direct-to-video sequels to retain the rights to the franchise. Hellraiser, helmed by David Bruckner, serves as a successful reimagining of the iconic elements and themes of the work while crafting new mythology. Its co-writers, Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski don't follow the original's plot but instead update the tale of pain and pleasure for a modern audience without losing any of its horrific edges.
Riley (Odessa A'zion) attempts to stay clean by going to her drug rehabilitation program and living with her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn) and his boyfriend Colin (Adam Faison) at their apartment. After fighting with Matt, she takes up her lover Trevor's (Drew Starkey) job offer to rob an abandoned shipping container for some quick cash. After breaking into a safe, they discover a strange ornate box, which Riley opts to keep. Following a final blowout with her brother, high and alone, she solves one side of the puzzle box, forcing the Cenobites, extra-dimensional beings not native to our reality, to come for her.
Through Riley’s addiction, Collins and Piotrowski reframe the themes of pleasure and pain in a new light and from a new perspective. Instead of sex, the narrative places its crosshairs on addiction. Riley’s addiction forces Colin and her brother's friends to mistrust her after Matt goes missing while she's high. The Cenobites exposing their victims to extreme physical experiences of pain and pleasure within their dimension mirrors the initial high of drug consumption. It's the perfect allegory. Riley understands the pleasure of a high and the extreme pain of withdrawals when fighting for sobriety. Like trying to survive the Cenobites, she must prevent her addiction from consuming her.
What's most interesting about the film is how Bruckner and the crew reinterpret the franchise's mythology. While this adaptation of Barker's novella The Hellbound Heart (1986) still has Cenobites, the Leviathan, and the Lament Configuration, certain elements differ. The most significant change lies in the role of the puzzle box. Instead of solely calling the Cenobites, it also acts as a timer or countdown as the murders act as steps in a ritual. Similarly, the box changes shape and design with each victim, signifying the ceremonial shifts.
Hellraiser places a more religious and ritualistic lens on the Cenobites and their reasons for killing. The Cenobites have also evolved visually. Instead of BDSM gear, the beings in the movie lean heavily into bodily modification with plenty of flayed skin and exposed muscle. This decision not only differentiates itself from the original Hellraiser but helps the beings feel terrifying and modern.
A'zion's performance as Riley oozes vulnerability and frustration, helping audiences to invest quickly in her as the film's protagonist. She portrays Riley's complicated nature and struggles with addiction beautifully. Specifically, her tense interactions with Matt about finding a job and dating Trevor highlight their relationship and the strain of her past actions. Jamie Clayton's portrayal of the Hell Priest or Pinhead is also phenomenal. Doug Bradley's legacy as Pinhead has become synonymous with the franchise, and Clayton's performance is an instant standout. Clayton's Pinhead contrasts Bradley's interpretation with her sensual yet commanding voice and regal physical presence. Momirka Bailovic's added a golden lock choker and pearl pins to the costume design, which exude the fabled desire promised by the Cenobites.
While the original has served as a pinnacle for queer horror, its successor retains the source material's queer nature. The story normalizes Matt and Colin as a regular couple and does not shy away from their intimacy. Granted, it could have gone a bit further compared to the love scenes between Riley and Trevor, but their relationship is not the story's focus. More noticeably, the queer element lies in having Clayton, a transgender woman, portray Pinhead. Instead of making her a simple gender-flip version of the character, this decision ties into the queerness of Barker's work. As the Cenobites have moved beyond their former humanity, the traditional notion of gender becomes meaningless to them. They only desire pleasure that exists outside human constructs and don't concern themselves with the concepts of sexuality and gender.
This reimagining of Hellraiser is one of the boldest and most impressive horror releases this year. Much like Hulu's Prey (2022), it deserves the big-screen theatrical treatment. Clive Barker should be proud that his original vision has been retained and updated for modern audiences. All one has to do is open the box and press play to experience the film's pain and pleasure.
Hellraiser is now streaming on Hulu.