Toward the beginning of 2022’s Hellraiser reboot, a young sex worker named Joey (Kit Clarke) approaches a wealthy man (Goran Visnjic) in a secluded room at a party. The man offers Joey a small golden puzzle box to play with. “So, if I solve it, do I get a prize?” Joey asks. The man smiles. “I do.” After Joey twists and turns the box, a blade snaps out and penetrates his palm. Suddenly, he’s seized and strung up by heavy chains as the other man turns his face to the skylight window above. The scene hides most of its gore but gives us a glimpse of what’s to come.
A few years later, Riley McKendry (Odessa A’zion), a recovering addict, and her boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey) break into a warehouse to steal from a locked storage container. The only thing inside is the puzzle box, which Riley asks to hold onto until the two can sell it. Little does Riley know this theft will be the beginning of her suffering and will set her off on a journey to get answers about the mysterious Cenobites, a group of interdimensional beings the puzzle box has the power to summon.
For anyone who’s seen the 1987 film, it’s clear that this is not a direct remake of the original plot but a story with new characters and conflicts. Unlike its gnarly predecessor, this Hellraiser is slicker and more sophisticated. It trades in tension and atmosphere instead of consistent scares. Still, there’s enough body-rending to make for an unnerving viewing.
This atmospheric bent of the movie emerges mainly from its handling of the perpetrators and the violence they enact. 2022’s Hellraiser doesn’t shy away from well-lit sets that showcase the new designs of the Cenobites. Although some scenes revel in dark tunnels, much of the runtime shows the Cenobites and their leader, the Priest (AKA Pinhead, played by Jamie Clayton), without much obscuring. It steers the film away from traditional horror in its focus on mood over menace. The action feels sleek, and the blood-letting poised. Just as the puzzle box slowly swallows the blood of its next victim, so does the film carefully and purposefully shed its red.
The film also doesn’t hide its themes, wearing its cultural critiques on its sleeve. It becomes clear that this film is interested in commenting on the grip addiction can hold and how greed can become cannibalistic. With that said, it never really delves into the profound potential of these issues. It instead chooses to skirt the surface and use addiction and greed as flourishes rather than take them seriously as material worth investigating with nuance.
Structurally, the film has a slow first half and an intense second. At a clean two hours, the film does seem longer than it needs to, with the tension building slowly for an hour before the film unleashes itself. The first act is plodding, setting up the puzzle box’s use in an oddly-shot sequence and taking a while to establish Riley’s simple backstory. A cleaner journey to the first sight of the Cenobites would have benefited the film’s pacing. As Riley’s journey continues, the film becomes meaty–literally and figuratively. It develops into a complex second half with a particularly satisfying third act. This dichotomous structure makes the film feel uneven, but it doesn’t make for a dismissable piece.
A’zion offers a controlled and convincing performance as Riley, a young woman desperate to atone for her mistakes. Despite a thin cast of supporting characters, especially Riley’s brother’s boyfriend Colin (Adam Faison) and Riley’s roommate Nora (Aoife Hinds)–the latter of whom receives no distinct development at all–the cast does well conveying the suffocating terror of the Cenobites’ pursuit. Jamie Clayton offers a cool and collected take on Pinhead that hides a curious delight beneath her calm surface.
It isn’t easy to discuss the film without giving away too many of its more engrossing details, but suffice it to say there are enough surprises in the film’s second half to navigate. Although different from Clive Barker’s original take on the Priest and his companions, Hellraiser can still chill Pinhead fans old and new alike. With that said, something is missing from a reboot of this transgressive classic. Too much polish and not enough grit hold the film back from paying proper homage to its precursor. The problem with Hellraiser (2022) is that all its elements don’t come together to make a film that feels genuinely worthwhile. In fact, I just don’t have a lot to say about it. It’s certainly interesting at points, but the story’s human element–the answer to the question “so what?”–feels lacking for a film that wants to comment meaningfully on our culture.
Hellraiser (2022) is available to stream on Hulu exclusively.
by Bishop V. Navarro
Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter