The new Hellraiser is almost as good as the original. A big problem with remakes and reboots, especially in horror, is that the filmmakers rarely understand what made the first one so popular. They're simply trying to duplicate a vibe. Director David Bruckner (The Night House) and writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski understand the appeal of Clive Barker's masterpiece completely. They know it's not about how many times the monstrous "Cenobites" pop up, or how gruesome their acts are. It's about having a solid human story that finds flawed people facing those Cenobites as a consequence of their own actions. When the focus is on the people, the horror hits more powerfully than it does when presented for its own sake.
Riley (Odessa A'zion) is a recovering addict in a new relationship with Trevor (Drew Starkey), to the consternation of her protective older brother Matt (Brandon Flynn), who believes him to be a bad influence. He's not wrong. Trevor knows a way they can score quick, much-needed cash. It involves robbing a storage unit. The couple are surprised when the only thing they find inside is a weird puzzle box. Riley is intrigued by the thing, showing it to Matt, who mysteriously disappears after being slashed by a blade that springs out of it.
She begins searching for him, a process that eventually leads to the deserted mansion of Voight (Goran Visnjic), a billionaire collector who was the box's previous owner. Any Hellraiser fan knows playing with the box summons the Cenobites, led by The Priest (Jamie Clayton), a.k.a. "Pinhead." They are other-dimensional beings for whom pain and suffering are pleasurable, bordering on erotic. And since Riley has awakened them, they have a plan in place for her.
The 1987 Hellraiser is an intentionally disconcerting mixture of sexuality and graphic violence. The movie's power, aside from haunting visuals, comes from a story that finds people forced into accountability for their poor choices. Seeing the Cenobites as bad guys is slightly difficult, as they dole out gruesome punishment to characters who, frankly, have it coming. And in the center of it all is a young woman trying to stop the carnage. The new Hellraiser follows a similar trajectory, although it introduces new characters and scenarios. The themes, however, remain the same. Don't play with things you don't understand. Any misery you cause others in the world will come back on you tenfold. There's a fine line between pleasure and pain.
Riley's story arc works because it creates interesting dynamics. She's a screw-up, but a good person underneath her addiction. Matt is a caring brother with a judgmental streak that undermines his compassion. Trevor is shady, goading Riley into situations she should have no part of. It takes a while for the Cenobites to appear because the movie spends time developing this story. That makes their formal arrival ooze dread. A'zion makes a compelling lead, earning our empathy at the same time that she shows Riley's flaws. Watching her face the repercussions of stealing and playing with the puzzle box makes for great suspense.
On the more overt horror end, the redesigned Cenobites are awesome. Jamie Clayton, taking over for Doug Bradley as Pinhead, hits the right combination of being fearsome and commanding. Her presence looms ominously every time she comes onscreen. The other Cenobites have been magnificently conceived. Each one looks like a living manifestation of pain and misery. You can sense the kinky kick they get out of torturing their prey. The big finale is a tense explosion of sadomasochism, perfectly befitting what Barker established with his original. When it's over, the resolution proves both satisfying and horrifying.
Hellraiser stays true to the concept's fundamental core, while crafting a new story that allows for the Cenobites to be worked in meaningfully. The result is a dark, disturbing tale that leaves you unsettled, just as Clive Barker intended when he created this world.
out of four
Hellraiser is rated R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual content and brief graphic nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 1 minute.