Hellraiser, which explores the extremes of sensation in graphic detail, has long ranked among the horniest franchises in horror, a genre where sex and violence have always been inextricably linked. And when director David Bruckner (The Night House) was tapped for a Hellraiser reboot—and a much-needed reset of the franchise’s inconsistent mythology—he astutely recognized that its imagery was no longer as transgressive as it seemed back in 1987. He also realized that “sensation” itself can be expanded to include a much wider variety of experiences. The result, 35 years after Clive Barker’s original film, now has Hellraiser pushing buttons and testing limits like never before.
Bruckner spoke to The A.V. Club about his efforts to revive the franchise with new ideas for a new era, the Hellraiser hallmarks he hoped to honor, and the different directions his version takes. He also reflected on Hellraiser’s impact, as a film and as a franchise, on his evolving career.
The A.V. Club: It feels like a horror remake is a rite of passage now for genre filmmakers. What made Hellraiser the right one for you?
David Bruckner: Well, on one hand, it sure seems like IP is a lot of what we’re able to spend movie dollars to create these days. I’ve been fortunate to come across several IP opportunities over the years. I was attached to a Friday The 13th movie for a while. [But] why is Hellraiser the one? It’s a combination of things. First and foremost, there is so much you can do with it. I love anything that explores possession and temptation, because there’s a whole lot of fascinating feelings wrapped up in that. And then it straddles the line between so many different subgenres of horror. It just goes places that no one else can go. And I mean, that’s Barker. So just the fan in me was like, I want this to exist.
On another hand, I was very fortunate to be part of a team that had just come off a movie, and so Ben [Collins] and Luke [Piotrowski] and Spyglass was very supportive of many of the bigger ideas that we had. So it looked like we could get into a Hellraiser movie and it wouldn’t be watered down in some lesser studio fashion. So all of the signs there pointed to the possibility that this could happen. It’s hard for me to ignore the temptation to get lost in something that’s this fun and incredible. I’ve never worked on anything that pushed me and the other [collaborators] around me so much in terms of design and character. It was challenging in the way that you’d spend a day working on Hellraiser, and then you find that you wake up the next day and you can’t wait to get back to it.
AVC: The original Hellraiser is beloved, but the sequels aren’t as well regarded. How did that influence your approach to this film?
DB: Certainly I understand the criticism of where some of the franchise sequels turned out. A lot of that came from studio meddling. It came from low budgets. It was the space that was handed to the filmmakers. And none of us really know what those boardroom conversations were, or what was imposed upon the artists. And there are many attributes to a Hellraiser movie. But in narrative terms, there’s not a set engine to a Hellraiser movie.
With a slasher, you know the game. When you look at Friday The 13th, part of what’s so amazing about the run of that, and the audience is in on this joke, is that they kept finding a new reason to play this game. With Hellraiser, there was never that framework. So every single movie is a different way into the box, is a different interpretation of how one comes in contact with the Cenobites. And some of those played a little better than others. So it did give us the feeling that a lot had been tried, and maybe it would be permissible in the minds of Hellraiser fans to take a few creative risks [and] shake up what we’d seen before in ways that might be unexpected.
AVC: People expect certain hallmarks from the Hellraiser franchise—you retained that amazing Christopher Young score from the original film, for example. What else did you borrow or take inspiration from?
DB: Young’s themes are so intrinsic to the experience of Hellraiser itself that we had to reference them. But Ben Lovett worked really hard to reference Young’s themes, but find new ways to employ them throughout the film. Other aspects that we thought were just essential to the DNA of Hellraiser, a big one for me was the design of the Cenobites, but also I had to contend with how amazing it must have been in ’87 to see those images for the first time and go, “No one’s ever done anything like this before.” And so Hellraiser always advanced design. And thus we landed on this possibility of going farther with body modification than we’ve seen it before, and that you could get to some of the BDSM influences, but in a different way. What is leather but a representation of flesh? And this idea that anybody could tailor their own flesh and that all of their wounds would be eternally fresh, and they would be feeling everything all at once, but they would have this kind of elevated Zen attitude about the sensations, that they were able to ride on. That was something that we thought we could really run with. But other than that, we pulled a lot from the first two films. And I think there’s some surprises that harken to Hellbound in this film that we just thought, as fans, this has to exist.
AVC: The original film is one of the great horny horror movies, and sexuality is, of course, an integral part of what Clive Barker writes. Why did the main character’s addiction make for a better fulcrum to explore the powers of the box in this film?
DB: Well, I don’t know that it’s better than the original. I mean, the original film’s a masterpiece. But if there are going to be more Hellraiser movies, not every single one of them is going to be the exact same dynamic again. We didn’t set out to make a remake. But the movie has to be a little horny. That’s Hellraiser. But also you could think about temptation and sexuality in the same way that we struggle with concepts of addiction, and why somebody has certain compulsions and what would happen if they were carried too far. I think for me, what’s fascinating about the Cenobites is that they’re explorers of human experience, but to extremities that are terrifying to us. And so it seemed to make a lot of sense that someone like Riley, who struggles with addiction, has a restless anxiety in her heart. Riley’s drawn to shiny objects and that they relieve her the burden of living in some ways—and that can be losing herself in the physicality of this man, Trevor, that she’s drawn to. But it can also be pills found in the trunk of her car, a drug addiction, and it can also be losing yourself with a shiny puzzle box. There’s a similar pull to them in some ways. So that felt very Hellraiser to me.
AVC: This feels like a Hellraiser movie from the director of The Night House. How deliberate did you want to be with your visual signature here?
DB: If I am ever able to find similarities and things that I’ve worked on, it is always after the fact. When you’re in it, you’re just trying to get through it and you’re following your passions. I recognize that there are some elements in this movie that people can trace back to Night House, but I’m really not that aware of it when we’re doing it. It’s just what’s cool to me and what I get excited about. I did spend a lot of time thinking about what are my favorite ideas from the Hellraiser universe? What feels important to the DNA of a Hellraiser movie, and should we find a way to allude to if it’s organic to the story?
AVC: Talk a bit more about design inspirations, particularly for the Cenobites? Were there films or images you were pulling from to create their look?
DB: I have to mention Keith Thompson, who is an astonishing designer, and this is the fourth time that we’ve worked together. And we started to investigate ways to [push] body modification to limits we hadn’t seen before in Hellraiser and then finding a way to take the fetish elements and embed them in the designs. Cenobites are inter-dimensional doms—they all have their own kinks. But we thought that the black leather in particular had been replicated so many times over the years—and our feelings on BDSM have changed as a culture. In 1987, this might have felt very transgressive to suburbanite horror fans who weren’t prepared to look at what their innermost desires might be, but in 2022, that conversation is pretty above board, and you’re talking about a community of interest that’s high in consent and communication.
[But] I always thought that the spirit of the Cenobites was that they were going to take something that might be appealing and push it to limits that are terrifying to you. And by rethinking what we mean by leather, instead of it being a symbol of flesh, that it could be something built out of your own flesh—we liked to say the Cenobites are “their own leather”—that you could get at the same idea in a way that was shocking and fascinating. And Keith started to deliver images that you could really, really lean into. And that’s what really excited us. But we looked at a lot of comics. We obviously looked at all the movies. We also looked at a lot of just internet Hellraiser art—things fans had created over the years. And some of that departed in really fascinating ways, and then we landed on something that was unique to us.
AVC: The film itself feels very much like the puzzle box in terms of the look, the locations, the decor. How did you create parallels or structures to chart the evolution of the box, and consequently the story?
DB: That’s some heavy lifting in the creation of it, this idea that the structure of the movie has something to say about the experience that the characters are having—that you can find, I want to say puzzle metaphors, but I don’t know if that’s exactly right, in the imagery. That was something we definitely stumbled upon in the script [by] just chasing ideas that we loved. And then a big part of it was location scouting. I had a style guide put together with our production designer Kathrin Eder, who had worked The Night House, about environments that are changing, and about textures in particular that felt very Hellraiser. And we scouted a lot in Serbia to see if we could find locations that imbued that. It’s a small detail, but there are these Romanesque archways, simple curved archways that are present in the labyrinth—and that design style happens to be all over Belgrade. So we started finding ways to get the labyrinth to intrude upon reality just in the locations that we were filming. So I hope there’s a bit of a labyrinthine creep in the film that starts to set in.
AVC: The Night House seems to have accelerated the projects you’re working on. Are these films are putting you in a position to work on as many projects as you want?
DB: I’ve learned with this business never get comfortable, because I just have no idea what’s going to happen. I certainly hope that the phone will keep ringing or that people will keep picking up when I call. But it’s a really uncertain time for the business right now, so just for myself and conversations with other filmmakers that are friends of mine, we all are aware of the fact that we’ve got to work extra hard to get things across the line. But it’s certainly been an education working on an IP, and it’s something I would be open to again. But like most directors, I’ve got a backlog of things we’ve tried to do over the years that I really love. And maybe there’ll be more of a conversation to engage with some of that stuff again.