Director David Bruckner’s Hellraiser is not at all the same as Clive Barker’s 1987 original. That might seem obvious, but it’s important to note—if for no other reason than to help set expectations. Bruckner and his screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski don’t seem altogether interested in the kind of psychosexual introspection that drove Barker’s film (or the novella it was based upon), instead leveraging the franchise’s iconography as a canvas for a different sort of psychological exploration.
As decades of rights-preserving sequels can attest, that choice is nothing new for the Hellraiser franchise, but fans of Barker’s queer proclivities may be disappointed that this 2022 version marks another propagation rather than a return to its roots. That said, Bruckner, Collins, and Piotrowski plant their vision in fields that are no less rich, terrifying, or gorily violent than the hellbound story that started it all.
The new film stars Odessa A’zion as Riley, a drug addict struggling with recovery while living in the apartment of her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn) and his boyfriend Colin (Adam Faison). When Riley’s boyfriend and fellow addict Trevor (Drew Starkey) enlists her help on a warehouse break-in, she reluctantly agrees, recovering only a strange puzzle box as the sole piece of loot. But after Matt confronts her about being intoxicated, Riley storms out to sleep in her car, inadvertently solving the first stage of the box while succumbing to a pill-induced haze. Matt soon finds her, but cuts himself on the box in the process, becoming its next victim. When its monsters emerge and claim him, Riley decides to investigate the box further, in the hopes of finding clues that lead to her brother.
Consequently, Collins and Piotrowski transplant Barker’s fascination with the sensory BDSM extremes of pleasure and pain to the escapism and trauma of drug addiction—and it’s a surprisingly good fit for the material. A’zion delivers a powerful linchpin performance here, as Riley’s addiction and the enabling influence of a friend are not just harmful physically but socially as well when her closest familial relationship becomes a literal casualty. It’s a shockingly well-realized metaphor that reconceptualizes solving the puzzle box as a perpetual high to be chased, leaving behind a trail of destruction as the Cenobites become acolytes to a god of euphoric pain.
The Cenobites themselves are fascinatingly realized, with reality-bending entrances simultaneously reminiscent of a puzzle box, not to mention Bruckner’s previous work on The Night House. Their eerie redesigns strip away Barker’s BDSM fetishism—no longer as shocking to mainstream audiences as it was in 1987—in favor of mutilated flesh that turns their actual skin into the leather of their bondage. Though these monsters are occasionally underlit too severely to fully view their designs, the actors fascinatingly perform the roles as simultaneously single-minded, bestial, pious, and reverent. Taking over the role of series staple Pinhead, Jamie Clayton carries the same unwieldy but provocative combination of sensuality and menace as Doug Bradley did, but her alien disdain for differentiating between pain and pleasure not only sets her apart but reinforces this film’s deeper themes.
Despite those differences, this incarnation of Hellraiser delivers just as much bloody spectacle as its predecessor. Victims are once again rendered into raw meat by the franchise’s signature chains, but a variety of other torture devices, including barbed wire and needles, somehow never manage to transform them into anything quite as viscerally wet as the original film’s skinless killer. This is a film about psychic wounds made physical, so Bruckner frames scenes of violence as empathetic as they are painful, to extremely successful effect.
Conversely, the film’s shortcomings feel mostly like a byproduct of too many ideas which, when explored, slow the pacing of the storytelling after the first act. Riley’s investigation into the puzzle box and its previous owner opens a thorough and well-conceived mythology, but the screenplay seems almost too excited to show its world-building work, and as a consequence, that table-setting causes an extended lull between kills. Furthermore, a third-act subplot that draws parallels between substance abuse and the hedonistic pursuit of power is not only compelling, but timely, but it tips the focus from the Cenobites to a more benign villain whose presence undercuts Riley’s character arc.
That said, there’s a palpable love and dedication from all of the principal creatives for the material, which largely excuses their impulse to overstuff the film with ways to rebuild and expand it after so many lackluster installments. The filmmakers may divide the franchise’s fans by choosing not to plumb the same sadomasochistic depths of the original film, but this new version is its own heart-wrenching descent into a different kind of hell, and it’s a worthy successor to the name Hellraiser that reinvents its iconography in a new era and context. And despite the pain of leaving the past behind, Bruckner’s film paves the way for new, unexpected, and potentially even richer cinematic pleasures.