In the 1980s and 90s, some horror filmmakers were branching out from the typical slasher or haunted house fare and creating truly original works that blended elements of dark fantasy into the genre. The limitations of technology at the time meant that some of their ideas outstripped what they were able to convincingly pull off, but the melding of epic-scale, otherworldly imagery and frightening stories lead to some unforgettable movies, with Clive Barker’s 1987 classic Hellraiser (based on his novella The Hellbound Heart) perhaps standing out as the best of the bunch. Unfortunately, the original sequels offered diminishing returns, with everything from parts 5 through 8 simply being repurposed scripts from other projects and the 9th and 10th in 2011 and 2018 respectively being made on miniscule budgets solely so the studio could retain control of the rights to the characters. Barker regained the rights in 2020 and became more directly involved in this long-gestating reboot however, leading to this return-to-form for the series.
Recovering addict Riley (Odessa A’zion) is living with her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn), his boyfriend Colin (Adam Faison), and their roommate Nora (Aoife Hinds). Her boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey), whom Matt strongly disapproves of, convinces her to help him break into a shipping container in a long-abandoned warehouse to try and alleviate her money woes. Inside they find only a safe which contains another smaller box which in turn contains only an elaborate and mysterious puzzle box. Trevor is disappointed that there wasn’t anything more obviously valuable but lets Riley hold onto the box while he tries to determine if it’s worth selling. When she gets home late she finds Matt is livid with her for presumably falling back off of the wagon and the two have a fight that leads to her storming out of the apartment.
That night, after popping a few pills, she is sitting alone in a public park and toying with the box when she manages to solve the first level and a sharp blade erupts from within, nearly cutting her and causing her to have visions of eerie beings on the periphery of the park before passing out from the pills. Matt begins to feel guilty over his fight with Riley and so heads out to find her. When he does discover her asleep on a playground spinner he picks up the box and slices his palm on the blade, thus setting it in motion and summoning the creatures known as Cenobites, who exist in another hellish dimension with the purpose of inflicting extreme pain and suffering on those who call them.
While this isn’t a remake of the original story, it does hue closer to that film’s tone and style than any movie past the first few sequels. The Cenobites are appropriately intimidating and disturbing in appearance, with just the right amount of erudition to their speech. While the 1987 version was more about exploring the intersection of pleasure and pain, this one instead uses the puzzle box and those who become enthralled by it as a metaphor for addiction, how hard it can be to overcome, and the damage it wreaks on those suffering from the disease and those who struggle to help them to very good effect, which goes some way towards explaining a few of Riley’s more questionable decisions.
There are a lot of cool references back to the first few movies, in particular in the score, the designs of the Cenobites themselves, and the glimpses of their world we receive. The decision to keep its design so similar to the matte imagery of Hellraiser II works well and only makes it seem that much more alien. The grisly violence will be too much for some and the fantastic elements will probably never be everyone’s cup of tea (though the popularity of that genre on TV of late should mean people are more open to it than they were a few decades ago), but fans of the original movies and Barker’s work in general will be very pleased, as should anyone looking for a visually arresting descent into pure, nightmare-inducing horror. ★★★★
RATED R FOR STRONG BLOODY HORROR VIOLENCE AND GORE, LANGUAGE THROUGHOUT, SOME SEXUAL CONTENT, AND BRIEF GRAPHIC NUDITY.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor