Hellraiser review: more show than tell in this horror reboot

The Hellraiser reboot savvily lays the foundation for new tales in the Hellraiser Universe.

Jamie Clayton as Pinhead in Hellraiser
(Image: © Spyglass Media Group)

What to Watch Verdict

2022's Hellraiser is a psychological win and Jaime Clayton’s Priest is a worthy successor to Doug Bradley’s Pinhead.

Pros

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    Jaime Clayton is sensuously disturbing as The Priest

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    A simplistic spectacle of gore and body horror

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    The practical effects and reimagining of the Cenobites’ appearance

Cons

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    The time jump is too abrupt to flow easily into the third act

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    More screen time to help develop the history of the puzzle box

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    Too many cut-aways from important dialogue

Clive Barker’s 1987 Hellraiser is an adaptation of his novella The Hellbound Heart. The story revolves around Frank, a jaded hedonist who buys a puzzle box — said to open a portal to an extradimensional realm of carnal pleasures ruled by beings called the Cenobites — and Kristy, his niece. Kristy, to save herself, offers to help the Hell Priest, aka Pinhead, recapture Frank after inadvertently opening the portal. Barker’s character-focused narrative confronts the connection between the psycho-sexual, violence, and ennui.

David Brunker’s (The Night House) 2022 Hellraiser reboot, however, builds its chilling tale with gruesome psychological sleight of hand and an unhinged Faustian bargain as its emotional core. 

The mysterious puzzle box and its harbingers of fate, the Cenobites, act as the story’s driving force. It’s a smart departure that allows for respect to the original’s core themes of: eroticism, gratification, obsession, addiction, pain, pleasure, loss, betrayal and control, without requiring an adherence to its plot or characters. But have no fear, Brukner's tale merely takes an alternate path into this treacherous world that treats being unburdened as its holy grail. 

Odessa A'zion plays Riley McKendry, a 20-something addict newly in recovery. She lives with her loving, if overbearing, brother Matt (Brandon Flynn) and his partner Colin (Adam Faison). Matt isn’t a fan of Riley's boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey) and pushes for her to end the relationship and focus on her sobriety. Frustrated with a low-paying gig and her brother’s constant paternalistic badgering, Riley agrees to help Trevor pull off a heist at a former job site in exchange for a cut of the money. Things take an unexpected turn when instead of money or easily pawnable items, the duo finds a mysterious puzzle box. Fascinated by the box, Riley agrees to hold on to it until Trevor can find a buyer. 

Ill-equipped to deal with his sister’s issues and fed up when she comes home drunk, Matt kicks her out of his apartment. Riley leaves in a drunken fit. She opens the puzzle box in a drugged haze after taking pills. In her stupor, she encounters The Priest (Jamie Clayton), who whispers the box's hunger for blood and demands she fulfill the promise implied by opening it. Give it her life… or feed it another. What follows is a gory journey that brings Hellraiser’s uniquely 80s outsider aesthetic and nuanced trope manipulation to life in a sinister contemporary world.

Fans of the original Hellraiser, you’ll immediately appreciate how screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski turn David S. Goyer's story treatment into a lurid mystery that follows Barker’s twisted roadmap to hell. The movie opens with a prologue sequence centering on the puzzle box’s previous owner Roland Voight (Goran Visnjic). It sets a compelling backdrop, but this aspect of the worldbuilding is woefully underdeveloped given its later importance to the story. 

While it's understandable why Brukner shied away from the plot points that could too closely mirror the original, his thematic approach doesn't fully work. There’s an abruptness to the story jumps, simplistic character design and an intentional narrative incompleteness. Though this does leave room for weaving in the history of the box and its repulsively trickster allure with Riley’s disastrous decision-making, short-sightedness and moments of horrific clarity as she tries to understand what’s happening.

The Priest, aka Pinhead, and the Cenobites are relentless in their efforts to antagonize Riley into fulfilling the puzzle’s purpose. Clayton’s Priest is a captivating reimagining of Pinhead that disturbs and entices. She brings the hellish wish-master to life with a blend of stoicism, lyrical movement and cunning grace. Even as she waxes poetic about the exploration of sensation, her violent thirst is inescapable. It’s a masterful retooling of the iconic character that reconnects the Cenobites to their roots as The Order of the Gash (opens in new tab).  

The precision and care taken with recreating the Cenobites by effects artists Josh and Sierra Russell brings the macabre concept art of Keith Thompson to grotesque life. There’s a gracefulness that’s decidedly off-putting to their syncopated stalking and deranged delight in pain that’s immersive; almost to the point of distraction.

Expect the story to take obvious turns to reach their natural conclusion. But don’t expect narrative cohesion even when plot points come full circle. Every aspect of Hellraiser's storytelling is in service to the puzzle box, not the people held in its sway. The character motivations are important only in-so-far as they feed the cascade of events that unlock the box's secrets. Hellraiser’s story progression, while rooted in remarkably unnerving performances, is decidedly simple. 

But it’s Hellraiser, the whole point is Riley's destructive journey into chaos and a reckoning triggered by her seeming inability to say "no" or consider the impact of her choices on others. It's an unsubtle treatise on addiction, shame, fear and ultimately the burden of consequences. It's exactly the right psychological cliff a franchise reboot needed to leap from. 

Hellraiser premieres October 7 on Hulu in the US; a UK date is TBD.

Ro is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film/tv critic, writer and host on several of the MTR Network's podcasts. She's a member of the San Diego Film Critics Society and the Online Association of Female Film Critics. She's a former culture columnist for San Diego CityBeat (may it rest in peace) with a serious addiction to genre fiction, horror and documentaries. You can find her sharing movie and book recs and random thoughts, on her podcast I Talk Sh!t and Read or in her newsletter, Shelf Envy.