The current fashion is to take franchises which have been stumbling on, churning out under-the-radar sequels for decades, and give them these weird do-overs that a) use the original title as if this were a remake rather than a sequel – thus forcing us to add dates after the film titles for the rest of time – and b) bring in slightly more heavyweight writing-directing talent to at least give the semblance of taking the project seriously. But, by the way, still cut corners like filming Serbia, pretending to be America. Halloween (2018) and Scream (2022) fit this bill, though the whole thing wobbled with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2021) – this new take on Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) is directed by David Bruckner, fresh from the excellent The Night House. Its casting coup is trans actor Jamie Clayton as ‘the priest’ — a revamp of the character nicknamed Pinhead – they now bristle with actual pearl-tipped hatpins rather than flathead nails – though the most interesting newcomer is Odessa A’zion, outstanding in Let’s Scare Julie, as the latest compromised innocent drawn into someone else’s pact with the cenobites and their deity Leviathan (as seen in Hellbound: Hellraiser II).
Scripted by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (Siren, Super Dark Times, The Night House), from a story they devised with David S. Goyer (who usually does top-tier comic book stuff), it runs long and stately at two hours – especially since it boasts a small cast and a tight-knit storyline. The latest rich sicko to acquire the puzzle box is Voight (Goran Visnjic), who obtains it thanks to the work of his minion Menaker (Hiam Abbass) – then regrets it offscreen and suffers for six years with the decidedly-unwanted gift of a chunk of infernal machinery transfixing him. Riley (A’Zion), out of rehab and living with her more responsible brother Matt (Brandon Flynn), is persuaded by her obviously dodgy new boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey) to heist an abandoned warehouse – they break with suspicious ease into a shipping container which contains a safe which contains a box which contains that familiar thing. Only it’s not quite as familiar as series fans might have expected – a neat early coup has someone spot the puzzle box in a glass case and we recognise the familiar square only to look at it from a different angle and discover that it’s a different shape. The box has always been called the Lament Configuration, but this take reasons that it’s not just a cool-sounding name but just one configuration of the box – there’s the Liminal Configuration, the Leviathan Configuration, and a bunch more which should be handy if this reboot gets sequels.
Tinkering with the box has bad consequences for Riley, though it’s her brother and his friends who immediately suffer as they’re hooked, chained, skinned and despatched by a new set of cenobites, who include a reboot of the Chatterer (Jason Liles), newbies The Weeper (Yinka Olorunnife) and The Gasp (Selina Lo) and an homage to an obscure British horror movie from 1973 The Asphyx (Zachary Hing). The cenobite designs are elaborate and uncomfortable to look at, sometimes owing as much to Guillermo del Toro’s bioclockwork as Barker’s s-m body mods – and the Chatterer in particular is allowed to be a vicious presence. The second half of the film takes place in Voight’s lair, which is constructed like a vast puzzle box as part of his ongoing struggle with the gift he’s had shoved through him. It’s something of an issue that our viewpoint character comes in late to the story, is intended as a pawn, and only becomes really interesting when she has to make a tough choice late in the day. The real story is between Voight, the Priest and the Leviathan – as signalled by snatches of Christopher Young’s Hellraiser themes and some lingering bodily abuses which do feel like something from a Hellraiser film (unlike, say, last half dozen or so movies released under that branding).
It’s not a write-off, like those shot-in-Bulgaria Texas Chainsaws, but it’s bypassed theatrical for streaming so probably won’t click like the Halloween and Scream reboots. It feels more like a respectful homage than a 2020s update – in the manner of Candyman (2021) – and I sort of wonder whether Clive Barker is the kind of creative who’d appreciate being treated like that … in many ways, disrespect would be truer to the Pinhead spirit.