It’s not likely that any review, positive or negative, will effect the reception of the latest “Hellraiser,” now the 11th addition to the cult horror franchise. Once certain properties attain cult status, its followers will delight in any offering, even if only to fuss over its ranking in the canon. Based off of Clive Barker’s 1986 novella and originally adapted by Barker in one of the great writer-to-filmmaker transformations, “Hellraiser” belongs to the freaks, punks, and fetishists who saw themselves in the S&M-inspired looks and story of unhinged sexual exploration.
Unfortunately, all of the kinky perversion has been scrubbed clean from the new version, with only a nice gay couple left in its place. It’s Disney does “Hellraiser,” which — incidentally — is exactly who paid for this latest iteration the classic.
Shedding the subtitles like a cenobite’s skin, “Hellraiser” is a 2022 rebirth for the franchise, free of all the sexy subversion that got it here in the first place. It’s perfectly entertaining, using Barker’s inventive tropes to tell a solidly gory nightmare, but it’s a pale vanilla shadow of the original. Capably directed by David Bruckner and written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, “Hellraiser” feels like it came from a team of straight horror guys who know what they’re doing, but still entirely missed the point. Either that, or they were stymied by the Hulu (AKA Disney) of it all.
Taken on its own merits, “Hellraiser” is the story of a defiant young woman battling addiction. It’s more feminist than anything else, with the darkly magnetic Riley leading her mostly male compatriots towards their twisted demise. In a strong show of charisma, Riley is played by up-and-comer Odessa A’zion, whose scrappy allure makes her a breath of fresh air from the usual Hollywood aesthetic. We meet her in flagrante, which ends abruptly with an impulsive “I love you” muttered from behind her, causing Riley to stop mid-act and lightly punch the guy. It just happened, explains Trevor (Drew Starkey) as he throws his clothes on and leaves in an awkward flutter.
Backing up a bit, the film opens with an “Eyes Wide Shut”-style sex party at a mansion fortress in — you couldn’t have guessed it — the Berkshires. A wide-eyed young man (Kit Clarke) is lured by Sabrina (in a fun part for Palestinian actress Haim Abbass) to the inner sanctum of eccentric businessman Roland Voight (“ER” cutie Goran Višnjić). Though it’s set up as a creepy seduction, the fun doesn’t last long. Voight quickly unleashes the mysterious ancient puzzle box on his young prey, which cuts his hand and sends chains out from every direction to maim him. The ceiling opens and Voight accepts his fate with maniacal glee.
Eighteen months later, Riley and Trevor break into a safe where they discover the box. Hoping for a quick score, they agree it must be worth something and take the creepy item. When Riley’s brother Matt (Brandon Flynn) suspects her of using drugs again, he kicks her out of the house where she’d been staying with his boyfriend Colin (Adam Faison) and roommate Nora (Aoife Hinds). Dizzying herself in a local playground, she sees her first vision of the evil she has unknowingly unleashed, a ghostly corpse awaiting its fate. When Matt comes to find her, he cuts himself on the puzzle box. Alone in a dingy public bathroom, the walls shift before him and Matt becomes the first victim to disappear into the cenobites’ wild underworld.
Riley’s determination to save her brother motivates everything that follows, first leading her to Sabrina, holed up in a hospital tied to an oxygen tank. Despite her warnings to stop the madness before it destroys everything she loves, Sabrina becomes the next victim. It’s here we get a better glimpse of this latest verison of the cenobites, now stripped of their iconic leathers and latex. This iteration of the cenobites looks like alien escapees from the “Bodies” exhibit, wearing inside out meat suits of muscle and organ. There’s nothing sexy about them, though they should be sufficiently grotesque for the body horror aficionados.
There’s not too much Jamie Clayton gets to do as their illustrious leader, Pinhead, though her casting is a fun nod to the queer fans. She plays the role as an androgynous omniscient master, doling out the orders to Riley with a wry smile and vacant expression. “Our power lies in dominance,” she explains. “Accept the pain you have wrought.”
Riley doesn’t seek unearthly pleasures that meld into pain, only the resurrection of her beloved brother. It’s an easy to swallow motivation, but it also means that there’s little deeper meaning to the decision she makes at the film’s finale, beyond its surface value. The whole thing wraps up quite neatly, with nary a boundary pushed. Fun was had, blood was shed, and no safe word needed.
“Hellraiser” starts streaming on Hulu on Friday, October 7.