Hellraiser (2022)

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Try as I might, I’ve never quite snuggled up to the Hellraiser franchise, a gory series of movies, comics and other media derived from Clive Barker’s 1986 story “The Hellbound Heart.” Why this particular tale, among dozens of others in Barker’s portfolio, wound up being his gravestone work is a mystery to me, though perhaps it shouldn’t be. It is, as noted, bloody and nasty, with a side order of cautionary horror about being careful what you wish for. If what you wish for is experience and sensation beyond anything imaginable, the punctured and harrowed angels/demons known as the Cenobites will oblige you — bloodily and nastily. Maybe it’s just a reflection of what scared the openly gay Barker himself during the peak of AIDS — a vision of blood-bound wrath drawn to hedonism.

Barker, who wrote and directed the first Hellraiser film in 1987, returns here as producer but leaves the footwork to other hands: director David Bruckner and writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski. What they come up with is sort of the same old story. The wealthy Roland Voight (Goran Višnjić) acquires the mystical puzzle box that summons the Cenobites and, so they claim, eternal pleasure. Gory things happen, and six years later the box finds its way into the hands of recovering addicts Riley (Odessa A’zion) and her boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey). The box is supposed to draw Riley’s blood, but instead it drinks from her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn); he disappears, and Riley determines to find him.

Anyone who’s seen the original Hellraiser probably remembers, with a sick laugh, the movie’s famous line “Jesus wept,”1 which in its context is just what the narrative needs at that moment. The new Hellraiser contains no jokes nearly as good, or indeed many jokes at all. I’m not saying every horror movie should be The Munsters (or even The Re-Animator). But moments of dark levity like “Jesus wept” are what keep the 1987 film warmly thought of after 35 years, and what is there in the new film to compel any affection, either from newcomers or old fans? Not a lot. And even though the acting is fine — Odessa A’zion, daughter of Pamela Adlon, makes Riley touchingly vulnerable, and Jamie Clayton as the Cenobites’ leader “Pinhead” has an icy, mordant way with her lines — unless you’re heavily into watching blood flow and flesh ripped and taffy-pulled, there’s not much entertainment value here.

Better minds than mine have likely analyzed where the Hellraiser concept fits into gay literature. Those who watched lovers and friends fade in the hospital during AIDS’ heyday in the mid-‘80s, watched them become human pincushions and their flesh mottle and melt off the bones, will see more in the torments devised by the Cenobites than others will. And here, in the interest of inclusion, we have a gay male couple, and a trans woman playing Pinhead. Thus the franchise seems queerer than ever, but a Pride float is not the quietest and therefore most deadly vehicle on which to convey the original subtext. “The Hellbound Heart” was a gay male horror artist telling a scary story to other gay men, saying “Look, I get it, but the pursuit of too much pleasure leads to death.” People in other demographics took other things away, of course. It was a big crossover success.

Will this one follow suit? Even if it hadn’t been sent direct to streaming and condemned to an eternal fate of being subsumed into Hulu’s back catalog, Hellraiser ’22 would be too dreary and sober-sided to go over with the mass audience. It’s blandly unpleasant, and even the flesh-ripping scenes pack neither the sting of authentic pain nor the surreal excesses of Barker’s original story. It just sits there, not daring to be remarkably bad or, heaven knows, remarkably good. Like other recent horror “reboots,” its tone is tepid, never showing any personality, and taking the material deadly seriously because the filmmakers think that’s what the fans want. Jesus wept.

1 Yes, I know the line was ad-libbed.

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