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Hellraiser Review: Such Sights To Show You

EDITORS' RATING: 9/10
Pros
  • It's beautifully shot
  • The cast is incredible
  • It rebuilds the Hellraiser world in fascinating ways
Cons
  • It would have been nice to spend a little more time with the worldbuilding

Building on the premise of Clive Barker's "Hellraiser" has proven both difficult and endlessly intriguing in the nearly 35 years since the original film arrived in theaters. That film, based on Barker's novella "The Hellbound Heart," plays like a dark fairy tale about an enchanted object, a cabal of demonic creatures who feast on pain, and a villainous rogue who wants the troubled young princess out of the picture. Like the puzzle box at the heart of its story, it's satisfyingly compact, self-contained, and ornate unto itself.

But that hasn't stopped a long parade of "Hellraiser" sequels, from big-budget early '90s fare to micro-budget direct-to-video duds, from trying to recapture some of the original film's magic. The latest of these, from "The Night House" director David Bruckner, is a full-on reboot aimed at infusing fresh life into the "Hellraiser" franchise while retaining something of the old Barkerian magic, complete with a gender-swapped Pinhead and several updates to the overall concept.

The result is something truly special: It's the first "Hellraiser" movie in years to really feel like it captures something of the ornate majesty of the first two movies while also working as an expansion of the mythology that might just pave the way for genuinely satisfying sequels in years to come. Put another way, this "Hellraiser" has such sights to show you, and you won't forget them anytime soon.

One box, two puzzles

Like most "Hellraiser" films, the new story picks up on a person who unwittingly stumbles upon the ornate puzzle box at the core of the narrative. This time around, it's Riley (Odessa A'zion), a recovering addict living with her brother (Brandon Flynn) and his more understanding boyfriend (Adam Faison). Riley finds the box during a planned robbery with her on-again off-again lover Trevor (Drew Starkey), who considers the job a bust when they're not really sure what to do with the thing. But Riley's inexplicably drawn to the box, and as she spends more time with it, she discovers its dark secrets unspooling, secrets that come with a body count.

Riley's investigations into the box, and what it might be able to do for her own struggles, eventually point in the direction of a reclusive billionaire (Goran Višnjić) and his own obsession with its configurations. The deeper she digs into the box's history, the more she finds. This includes a strange race of flayed beings known as the Cenobites, led by a viscous and beguiling Hell Priest (Jamie Clayton) who wants nothing more than souls converted to the cause of constant, ecstatic anguish.

If you've ever seen a "Hellraiser" film before, you recognize certain tropes in this scenario from the beginning. There are almost always people who know exactly what the box is and what it does, and people who know nothing about it, all coming together in a dark web of desire and pain under the watchful eye of the Cenobites. That part isn't new. What is new is how Bruckner and screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski weave those classic elements into a narrative as intricate and charged with meaning as the puzzle box itself.

The box of this film (and the Cenobites themselves) are capable of producing more than one outcome — though what those outcomes are and how the film arrives at them are best left for the full viewing experience. Riley, as a recovering addict, therefore sees a pathway through difficulty that might come through these beings, and an experience that was previously afforded only to the likes of the super rich. Of course, the catch is that she has to go through absolute terror to get to those places, and that's where the film's cast steps in to really add emotional depth to the whole piece.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Young Hellraisers

The world of Bruckner's "Hellraiser" is a sharply realized portrait of a modern age of Cenobites, one made all the more compelling by its largely young cast. Led by A'zion, these performers give their all to the truly horrific scenes, but perhaps more importantly, are able to play with spellbinding vulnerability the scenes of closer, calmer dread, when it's clear something bad is about to happen but it isn't clear what. A'zion in particular emerges as a major genre star in the piece, giving Riley just the right amount of human awe in the face of this strange new world while never letting go of her survivor's grit. Then there's Clayton, who plays Pinhead with the same commanding presence as her predecessor, Doug Bradley, but imbues her Hell Priest with an adding sense of zest for her task. It's a clever, remarkably controlled, and yes even sexy performance that reminds us all why this character caught on in pop culture to begin with.

As with "The Night House," Bruckner's direction also emerges as a character in the film. The way he slowly builds tension while never losing the overall projection of dark, delicate dread is masterful, as is his command of the complex and ambitious production design at work in his "Hellraiser," particularly as the film makes the turn into the third act. There's a sense of an overwhelming, commanding force sweeping a perhaps-malevolent guiding hand over the whole world in this film, and that comes from Bruckner's tonal precision and constantly probing camera. It gives the entire piece added resonance and an added layer of horror.

Whether "Hellraiser" can grow beyond the confines of this single new film remains to be seen, but as a piece which stands on its own as a new phase of a well-trodden horror property, it's a triumph in almost every way, a hypnotic descent into human darkness with an otherworldly allure. In other words, it's everything you want from a "Hellraiser" movie, fully achieved for the first time in decades.

"Hellraiser" arrives on Hulu on Friday, October 7.