British horrormeister Clive Barker made a huge name for himself with his novella The Hellbound Heart in 1986 and its film adaptation HELLRAISER in 1987. The story concerned a mystical puzzle box, a sort of Gothic Rubik’s Cube, that summoned three demons from hell to inflict all kinds of elaborate tortures on those who dared play with it. Flesh was ripped from bone in excruciating detail, making for one of the gorier frighteners of all time. Now, after 10 sequels of various quality over the decades, the franchise is getting a reboot. It’s not nearly as scary or unsettling as the original, keeping it from being as ripping a yarn as it aims to be.
Still, it gets points for updating the material with more likable protagonists. In the original film, the leads were two sleazebags, Frank, a hedonistic man having an affair with his brother’s wife Julia. Frank acquired the box to tap into its legendary carnal pleasures, but what he got instead were three demonic, sadomasochistic Cebonites tugging on his flesh with chains and hooks. The rest of the film saw him trying to restore his relationship with Julia, not to mention repair his destroyed body, by working with her to steal the flesh off of the men Julia picked up in bars to be brought to their doom.
It was all quite lurid and vicious, but we never really cheered for the human victims. Here, in the reboot, we do. Riley (Odessa A’zion) is a recovering addict trying to keep her addict boyfriend Matt (Brandon Flynn) on the straight and narrow too. They’re both very relatable, especially A’zion who gives her character a raspy, tomboyish energy that feels different than most actresses who find themselves in the ‘final girl’ role. The two flawed characters turn desperate for cash and end up robbing a warehouse collection of rich businessman Mr. Voight (a wonderfully sleazy Goran Visnjic). There they come into possession of the puzzle box and as soon as they start tinkering with it, well, you know what happens.
The rest of the film is basically one big chase scene with Riley, Matt, her brother Trevor (Drew Starkey), his lover Colin (Adam Faison), and roommate Nora (Aife Hinds) trying to avoid being fileted by the Cebonites and their vicious weapons. The humans fail, of course, or there wouldn’t be a movie, but the fun of the film is less in the battle between earthlings and supernatural beings, and more in how the film represents the hellish characters and their devices. The lead Cebonite known as “Pinhead” is played here by Jamie Clayton and she gives the Hell priest a slinking feline quality. Her lieutenants are Selina Lo as The Gasp, Hiam Abbass as Menaker, and Jason Liles as Chatterer, and each of them is an outlandish creation, grotesque and yet, almost beautiful. As are the deaths on display here.
In fact, the whole film is like that – imaginatively crafted, shot with almost gorgeous attention to detail by director David Bruckner and his cinematographer Eli Born. Bruckner places all the horrors in the context of specific settings too; they’re practically characters unto themselves. Homes, parks, museums – each is a specific place with spatial relations to the events occurring, well-thought-through by Bruckner and his exquisite production team.
The problems with the reboot of HELLRAISER though aren’t in the production design as much as they are in concept and dialogue. The conversation throughout the film gets bogged down with having to explain the complicated story and it’s all a lot of silliness anyway so it’s kind of a buzz kill. Screenwriters Ben Collins, Luke Piotrowski, and David S. Goyer are better off here when they let the action rip and don’t overthink it.
Ultimately, this reboot’s biggest flaw is that it’s just not nearly as scary as it should be. The original Cebonites seemed truly otherworldly, deliberate in movement, and chillingly odd in voice and manner. They took stillness to a whole new level of quiet evil too. The new demons here, sorry to say, feel almost cute, a bit like outlandish Cosplayers at times. Is that because it’s Disney producing this reboot and premiering it on their Hulu streaming platform today? Perhaps the powers that be regard the new Pinhead as their newest addition to the stable of Disney princesses. Now that’s a helluva thought.