Heaven’s just a rumor she’ll dispel / As she walks me through the nicest parts of hellNine Inch Nails, “Sanctified”
Bloodied chains rattle across the marble floor, blades digging through flesh to drag the unsuspecting from their banal reality into a world of tortured pleasure. The configuration has been completed, the cosmic space between dimensions torn as Hell’s priestess and her acolytes come to collect an offering. Skin shredded, veins passed through gilded machinery, sinew pulled and torn, ripped down to muscle and bone until you are no longer human, just a vessel for the satiation of suffering. Pray for salvation, plead to the gods who will not listen as the grimy walls of the labyrinthine expanse of anguish creep slowly into your world. Her bloody hand reaches out, beckoning your exploration of the limitless thresholds of pain. She has such sights to show you.
The promises of the gore-soaked nightmare are immediately enticing, David Bruckner’s reimagining of Hellraiser opening with the reintroduction of the franchise’s iconic puzzle box alongside the first victim of the Cenobites being brutally strung up, flesh shredded by violent chains. The mysterious and wealthy Voight (Goran Visnjic), a hedonistic zealot devoted to the opulent promises of pleasure offered by the puzzle box, is positioned as the film’s stand-in for Frank Cotton, dedicating his existence to solving each configuration of the box in order to be granted an audience with the faceless Leviathan. As he raises his arms to the sky as the clouds and thunder curl towards him, it feels like Hellraiser is in the right hands, an aesthetically driven revival of the franchise that takes the right notes from Clive Barker’s original film and crushes it all up into something fresh and new.
The film’s post-title card smash cut to an energetic sex scene, however, is indicative of the film’s ultimate failure to understand its source material, and even further an indicator of an inability to ever truly blend the two worlds it brings together. Sex is certainly integral to Hellraiser as a franchise, the 1987 classic heavily interwoven with leathery perversion and sadomasochistic sexuality, but the intent is lost here. This is not sex as a means to achieve the furthest reaches of pain as pleasure, this is not seduction weaponized to sacrifice the flesh of the living to reconstruct a lurid affair partner, it’s just pure pleasure with no desire to explore further. It’s a mindset that expands beyond this opening introduction of protagonists Riley (Odessa A’zion, with an appropriately punk style and attitude that’s often missing from the rest of the film) and Trevor (Drew Starkey).
Bruckner’s revival of Hellraiser, ultimately, seems to have no idea what it’s about, presenting the idealized aesthetic of the Cenobite underworld with all the buckets of blood, razor wire, and chains you would expect, but without any of the actual weight that once made that world so compelling. In the plane of the living, Riley struggles being torn apart by addiction, her caring brother Colin (Adam Faison) trying his hardest to keep her clean and healthy while Trevor lures with temptations of drugs and cash. Though familiar and perhaps contrived, the addiction narrative feels worthy in a film where interdimensional demons hellbent on physical mutilation as pleasure begin to invade our world. Instead it’s just willfully discarded at the earliest opportunity, forgetting all prior characterization in favor of the threat of the Cenobites without ever making a faithful effort to weave meaning into the imagery of addiction.
Voight is an equally meaningless replacement for Frank Cotton, existing as little more than a tangential catalyst to the existence of the puzzle box along with providing the opulent mansion where the majority of the film takes place. His placement and arc within the film rarely serves any wider purpose or injects any tangible substance, just a deranged zealot vying for Hell’s power, his desires so simultaneously unclear due to lack of any effort to grant him actual character as well as extremely straightforward because the film is only interested in using him as a guy obsessed with being granted an audience with something greater. As with the film’s failure to investigate its relationships with addiction and sex, it also has no interest in investigating its relationship with power, all purely aesthetic concepts that the film doesn’t really want to deconstruct.
As the Cenobites begin to crawl through the glossy digital sheen of it all (a tired and overly familiar visual sensibility that plagues these updated franchise reboots, lacking any sense of tactile grit or actual flair) and the blood starts to drip down the walls, it’s hard to fault the film’s efforts at infusing new life into the franchise. Slowly tilting into focus as the phantasmagoria begins to blend its multilayered reality into a crumbling descent into Hell, a new priest awaits. Jamie Clayton’s interpretation of the franchise’s iconic villain showers the film in hellish brilliance, a perfect portrayal of Pinhead’s chillingly calm demeanor as she beckons Riley to spill the blood of the innocent for her own gain. Her voice reverberates beyond the frame, a resonant echo of pain that sinks into your bones before she turns her flesh and sinew coattails and walks back into the labyrinth.
Sometimes, that aesthetic ideal is enough to carry a film. Here, despite the messy narrative and hollow ideology at the core of it all, the confidence with which it reinvents the aesthetic of the nightmare and reframes the leathery ‘80s with a flesh-soaked modernity infuses it with enough to craft something enjoyably worthwhile. Though it might not reach anything near the searingly beautiful pain of Clive Barker’s original film, it still maintains an oozing gory escalation throughout, constantly ratcheting up the madness as Pinhead and her acolytes come to claim their bounty of blood. There’s clearly a lot of love for the Cenobites behind the screen, it’s a shame that love can’t ever quite coalesce into something more cohesive and spellbinding. While the wider film may not be so captivating, every time rows of bloody pins shift into focus alongside glistening golden buttons and clothing made of muscle and skin your attention is fully commanded, ready to stumble blindly into the six configurations. Jesus wept.