In 1987, Clive Barker unleashed “Hellraiser,” his stylish, artistic, gooey, kinky horror pic adapted from his own novella, “The Hellbound Heart.” The film became a big hit and introduced audiences to the cenobites, a group of S&M creatures — angels to some, demons to others — who are summoned from untold dimensions by a puzzle box to offer people unspeakable pleasures and pain. The leader of the group, Pinhead, instantly became iconic, and when that sort of thing happens, sequels follow. Sure enough, a total of 10 films came out of the “Hellraiser” world, each more disappointing than the last. The series became dire, taking unused scripts for thrillers and clumsily shoe-horning Pinhead into the mix. Worse: the sequels also completely betrayed what made Pinhead and his cenobite pals so memorable. In the first and second films, which were shot back-to-back, Pinhead and his gang aren’t necessarily evil demons from hell. They’re otherworldly beings who get off on extreme pain. And if they dragged a few people to their death in the process, well, that was okay, too.
But as the series progressed (or regressed would probably be the better word), Pinhead changed into a Freddy Krueger-style slasher, spouting one-liners and stalking people like a common serial killer. Over the years, as the franchise grew worse, there was plenty of talk about a potential remake, or reboot, or reimagining, or whatever you want to call it. Now, it’s happened (this is actually one of two reboots on the way; there’s a TV series headed to HBO Max, too). Pinhead is back, now played by Jamie Clayton, our first female Pinhead. This idea isn’t so far removed from the source material — the character that appears in “The Hellbound Heart” is described as androgynous, with a feminine voice. David Bruckner, who helmed the recent, and very scary “The Night House,” is at the helm here, and that’s a promising idea. Bruckner’s “Night House” had a certain “Hellraiser”-vibe to it, complete with its obsession over physical structures and shapes that can be used to summon things from another world. So when I heard Bruckner was the one to bring the new “Hellraiser” to life, I perked up. With the franchise in such dire straits, bringing in someone like Bruckner could only be a step-up, right?
The answer: yes. How could it not? And yet … Bruckner’s “Hellraiser” still feels lacking, although not for lack of trying. Pinhead and the new cenobites here are effectively scary and strange — but good look trying to see them for most of the film. They all have slick new designs, but the film is so murky and dark that you might need to boost your TV brightness. Barker’s original film trafficked in darkness, too. But we could still see what the frig was happening on the screen. The real issue with Bruckner’s “Hellraiser,” however, is that it often feels kind of generic. I don’t even love Barker’s original film all that much, but it felt different. Barker was never the best filmmaker, but he knew how to create an otherworldly atmosphere that stuck in your brain. I can’t say the same for what Bruckner is doing here. On top of that, the inherent kinkiness built into the series is completely gone (sure, there are sex scenes, but they’re fairly vanilla). “Hellraiser” 2022 is the best the franchise has been in a while, but that’s also not saying much.