Hellraiser (2022)

OCTOBER 4, 2022

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (BEYOND FEST)

I had to laugh when Hellraiser ended and I spied a certain credit among its writers; a bit of information that had escaped me up until now. See, about two thirds of the way through the (two hour!) movie I realized that an opening sequence was really unnecessary and the movie would be much better without it, as it tipped its hand for a mystery that our protagonist was trying to solve. "It's like when they screwed up Dark City with that opening narration!" I thought, and then the writing credits came up and I see David S. Goyer was one of them - the same Goyer who rewrote Dark City! STOP WRECKING YOUR MOVIES, GOYER!

OK, "wrecked" is a strong word. There's a lot to like here, and if you're comparing to the likes of Hellworld and Deader it will come off even better. But this really coulda/shoulda been a knockout considering the talent involved (the other writers and director David Bruckner gave us the terrific Night House) and the fact that they wisely opted not to remake the original (no Frank, no Julia, no Kirsty, etc) and truly reimagine the concept from the ground up. There are some cutesy callbacks from dialogue (a guy asking "What's your pleasure?" when tending a bar got a mild chuckle from me) and Ben Lovett's score occasionally reprises Christopher Young's iconic themes, but otherwise it's a completely new scenario, with wholly original characters beyond new takes on Chatterer and (naturally) Pinhead, who is now played by a woman and has a different tact when dealing with potential victims.

But I can't help but think it would have been closer to knockout territory if they never had that opening bit, in which the film's human villain (Goran Visnjic) lures a partygoer into his secret room and gets him to play with the Lament Configuration, summoning Cenobites and tearing him asunder. Yes, it's a Hellraiser movie and thus it's obvious that these sort of things are going to come into play, but the miscalculation here is that it's not "Hellraiser 11", it's a completely fresh start - which means they have their own rules and zero obligation to do what's expected. And making it worse, the main character is a young addict named Riley who isn't sure if the weird things she's seeing (i.e. cenobites, puzzle boxes coming to life, etc) are real or part of a drug-induced hallucination. Being that it's a remake (from a team who made a psychologically driven thriller) it actually would not only be possible, but kind of daring if she was indeed just killing people herself and chalking it up to some sort of demon (hell, go a bit meta and have her visions be inspired by an '80s horror movie she saw!), but the fact that we know perfectly well what's happening - since we saw some of it before she even got involved! - this angle never works.

So we know she's not imagining anything, and thanks to that opener, we also know who is behind it, another mystery she spends some of the film's considerable runtime trying to solve. There's some half-assed attempt to pass off Visnjic's character (a rich jerk named Voight) as being dead, but... come on. Why would they hire a recognizable actor to play this particular role if he wasn't going to come back and (spoiler for the completely inept) reveal he's lured her and her friends there to be other sacrifices? It's just frustrating, all of the pieces are there to make this a really cool and engaging film (not to mention a terrific way to relaunch a franchise) but it never really (sigh, I gotta do it - sorry) got its hooks into me because I was always so far ahead of the protagonist, in a story that's also too drawn out for its own good. They even much it up AGAIN later, when one of her friends is revealed to be working with Voight, something that very easily could have been a surprise if we found out the same time as Riley, but no - it's explained to us (not her) 10-15 minutes prior, for no reason whatsoever. There's probably a 90-95 minute cut of this movie that would work really well, but instead we get one that keeps narratively shooting itself in the foot while delaying the inevitable.

Also, while rehashing Frank and Julia wouldn't have been wise, they could have at least given us an antagonist on an equal footing with them. Since Voight is supposed to be dead he can't re-enter the story until much later, and Riley and her friends have no real desires to speak of either, to the point where I wondered if Pinhead herself was going to be disappointed that this was all she had to work with. It's kind of amusing that Night House's plot almost seems like it could have been retrofitted into a Hellraiser (a guy regrets opening the box and tries to trick Pinhead with lookalikes to save his wife's soul!) and yet they miss the mark here on what constitutes engaging heroes or villains. The characters not only lack that kind of edge, but some lack any identifying traits at all. Riley's main goal is to find her brother Matt (who disappears and is presumably killed when she first opens the box) and she is joined by his boyfriend and her own boyfriend, but also Matt's roommate, a girl named Nora who - after spending nearly 90 minutes with her - I couldn't tell you one thing about besides... the fact that her name is Nora and she is the Matt's roommate. Remember Kirsty's dull boyfriend in the first movie who they got rid of with a line of dialogue in Hellbound? This movie is populated mostly by people who aren't even as interesting as he was.

All that said, if they put out a lavish coffee table book devoted to the film's design work, I'd preorder two copies: one to keep nice for me, the other to carry around with me so that when I go see a new horror movie with bland sets and no imagination whatsoever to the visuals, I can shove it in the director's face in hopes that they'll take some inspiration and do better on the next one. Pinhead is given a makeover from the neck down, the new cenobites are pure nightmare fuel (their accompanying sound design is terrific too - "The Gasp" in particular unnerved me throughout, and Chatterer's teeth clacking has never been more unsettling), and the new design for the puzzle box is quite striking as well, in all its many forms (part of the new idea is that the box goes through stages as it collects souls). And while the early areas aren't much to look at, a big chunk of the film takes place in Voight's mansion, which is already impressive but is then embellished with iron gates and shields that spread across the entire building, controlled by switches and making the place itself kind of like a puzzle box (I suspect someone involved was a fan of the "Elysium Configuration" in Bloodline!). There isn't much in the way of gore, and it's often disappointingly cut around (like when a character is impaled by a device meant to keep him alive - we see it approach him, and then suddenly it's sticking out of his chest and back, without showing the impact), but there are a number of bits that will upset the squeamish, especially if you have a thing against razor wire and peeled skin.

And by wisely changing Pinhead, comparisons to Doug Bradley never make sense, something the replacements in Revelations and Judgment could never escape. Jamie Clayton's take gives Pinhead (actually named The Priest) an icy, quiet demeanor, playing 4D chess with the characters and letting the smallest change in their expression mark their satisfaction with scoring another victory. They don't get into it too much, but there's a sense that because she's got a feminine demeanor, Riley can appeal to her sympathies while Voight can manipulate her, but in reality "The Priest" doesn't seem to possess the same kind of lingering humanity that we got from Pinhead (thanks to Elliot Spencer). But the filmmakers are smart enough not to overuse them; they only appear about as much as Bradley did in Hellbound, if even that much, making those appearances count instead of positing them as an "icon" who has to be front and center.

I dunno. I seem to be in the minority, and that's a good thing - I want people to love it as much as I wanted to, and I'm legit sad I thought it was just OK. But even if we disagree on the characters or whatever, it's a cold hard fact that the '80s entries were kinkier and taboo-breaking than this, as even some folks who really liked it agree that it's surprisingly tame (there's almost no sex at all; it's possibly the least horny entry in the entire series!), which is odd. Clayton's Pinhead and the design work alone keep it into "win" category if we're going to be binary about everything (which seems wrong when discussing Hellraiser!), and I hope they can use the groundwork laid here to create their own "Hellbound" (i.e. a sequel that expands the world and in many ways improves on the original), but I can't help but feel disappointed that there are at least two of the Dimension ones that I found more engaging in terms of the plot and characters. To each their own, I guess!

What say you?

5 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. And I in turn am sorry you missed the part where I specifically note it's NOT an issue that it's unlike the others, as well as multiple paragraphs that detail why the characters and plot weren't engaging me, which is ultimately the reason I'm mixed on the movie. I'll try harder to... I dunno, make the point size bigger or something next time?

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  2. Sorry to offend I'm done blogging

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  3. I usually am but i was utterly baffled how they came away with "didn't like it because it was different from the original" when all of my criticisms (except for being relatively tame) had zero to do with the other films, and I even defended that they changed things up. Sorry but I just have no patience for people who will argue without actually reading what I said.

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  4. "it's a completely new scenario"

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    It's the same scenario, which amused when I figured it out - guy opens the box, doesn't like what he gets, and lures other people to sacrifice to escape his fate, and an innocent leads the Cenobites to him in an attempt to save someone they care about, which they ultimately fail at.

    I loved that aspect, because it shows how differently you can do what is, essentially, the same story at a very macro level.

    I liked it a lot more than you seem to have, but I am also a mark for the stuff that it's doing.

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