Holy hell, someone made a new “Hellraiser” that isn’t just good, it’s spectacularly good — a sexy, sinister, visually breathtaking rebirth.
There are a handful of truly sacred cows in the genre — films and franchises that transcend cinema and become fully embedded in the pop culture lexicon. These are the films that, for so many of us, gave birth to our horror obsession. They are — to borrow the title of Brian Volk-Weiss’s excellent documentary series — The Movies That Made Us.
Most horror fans of a certain age have at least one iconic property they consider foundational in their early exploration of and passion for the genre. For many of us, Hellraiser is certainly among those highly influential touchstones, if not the defining film/franchise in our developing obsession.
But it’s a franchise that has long felt dead and buried, with little hope of anyone successfully reviving it and returning it to its original glory.
Perhaps because that first film from Clive Barker (along with its excellent sequel) was so remarkable, it created a bar-setting legacy that is almost impossible to live up to. We tasted the pleasures and saw the sights and were never the same again.
Then there was the demon priest himself, the grandiloquent leader of the cenobites, dubbed by production and make-up crew as Pinhead, played by Doug Bradley.
In some rare cases, an actor has so completely embodied a character as to become inextricably linked with that character, making it nearly impossible to imagine — or accept — anyone else in that role.
With a property like Halloween or Friday the 13th, the icon we love is Michael or Jason, and we’ll accept (for the most part) any capable actor in this role who can deliver on the physicality needed to bring that character to life. However, in the case of A Nightmare on Elm Street or Hellraiser, it’s not just about Freddy and Pinhead. It’s about Robert Englund and Doug Bradley.
The actor is as much the icon as the character.
And we all know how problematic it’s been when these franchises have tried to carry on without their main attractions.
It’s not about acting chops, either. Even a fine thespian can fall wildly short of fan expectations, as we saw in the ill-fated A Nightmare on Elm Street reboot of 2010. There seems to be no replacing Englund. He is and will forever be Freddy in the eyes of Elm Street devotees.
The same is true for Bradley, who helped make Pinhead (the Hell Priest) one of the most iconic, recognizable, and memorable horror villains of all time.
The problem with trying to walk in the footsteps of someone like Bradley is that you are forever in his shadow.
If you try to emulate his larger-than-life presence, it’s dismissed as an inferior reproduction, a cheap copy of the beloved original. But you face backlash and condemnation if you don’t give fans what they’ve come to love and expect from the character. It’s a no-win situation, and it’s the reason why any attempt to reboot Hellraiser without Bradley is instantly scorned.
The only hope you have of success is to give fans something so wildly different and unexpected that it helps reset the franchise, taking it in a new direction while still honoring the legacy of greatness that came before. It’s incredibly hard to pull off.
It’s why news of a beloved franchise’s rebirth is met with a complicated mix of excitement and fear, hopefulness and extreme trepidation. We desperately want it to work, but we typically expect to be disappointed.
Thus, when the World Premiere of David Bruckner’s Hellraiser was announced as the Secret Screening at this year’s Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, audiences had to be reassured that it was “actually a good Hellraiser.”
It was as if to say, “I know what you’re thinking, but someone finally got it right this time.”
And get it right, they did.
Casting Jamie Clayton (The Neon Demon, Sense8) as the Priest/Pinhead was a stroke of genius. It was essential to cast an actor who could make the character their own, bringing a refreshing new vision to the franchise without drawing comparisons to Bradley.
The decision to recast the role as a woman served to immediately put distance between Bradley’s iconic interpretation and the reimagining of Pinhead for a new generation.
It wasn’t just a savvy casting stunt, however. Clayton is extraordinary in every way. She brings striking gothic beauty to the character, making her simultaneously alluring and appropriately sinister, twisted yet strangely sensual. She fully embodies the pathos of Hellraiser: that devilish dichotomy between pleasure and pain, a world of torture and suffering that somehow feels seductively enticing.
One thing that’s always differentiated Hellraiser from other classic 80’s horror films of the time was the brilliant writing from Clive Barker.
The dialogue, specifically that which is attributed to Pinhead, feels more poetry than prose. There’s such an elegance about it, and every line uttered feels weighty and meaningful. It’s the kind of wordplay that transcends base villainry and supernatural terror and makes it all feel like a spiritual experience.
Writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, working from a screen story they co-wrote with David S. Goyer, pay loving respect to Barker’s exquisite turns of phrase.
The screenwriters of the new Hellraiser deliver a script that feels worthy of a Master of Horror.
At the Fantastic Fest Q&A, Collins and Piotrowski noted that they highlighted in yellow any dialogue to be spoken by the Priest. They recognized how important this character’s dialogue was; every time she spoke, it needed to carry a feeling of gravitas.
Not only did the screenwriters more than deliver when it came to putting potent words to paper, but Clayton ate up every line of dialogue — delivering a chilling, erotically-charged, captivating tour-de-force performance.
She also looks incredible, getting a modern makeover that feels original while still firmly rooted in the morbidly beautiful world created by Barker’s original.
Doug Bradley himself said on Instagram, “I’m a bit blown away by this! The clever re-design of the make-up; the shimmer of the “pin heads”; the palette: whatever the keyhole/locket/tracheotomy thing is at the throat. It’s simple, subtle, disturbing and sexy. Everything it should be.”
And it’s not just Pinhead’s design that will turn heads. The new cenobites are flawlessly designed and as visually intoxicating as fans expect and demand. They are just as iconic as ever and every bit as disturbing.
In many ways, their new macabre design significantly enhances their frightful appearance.
I don’t want to reveal too much, but director Bruckner described his approach to styling the cenobites and the innovative idea to have them wear their own leather — “suits” composed of their own skin. It’s every bit as horrifying as it sounds, in the most sinfully satisfying way.
Not only is the world of Bruckner’s Hellraiser quite a visual feast, but it’s extra sexy for horror fans who love practical effects.
As Bruckner stated in an interview, “Every puzzle box is practical, and every Cenobite is practical. We had a very practical approach to the film that’s in keeping with the franchise. There were moments where we leaned into digital, but we tried to be very, very judicious as to when that would happen.”
HELLRAISER (2022) isn’t just a competent reboot. It doesn’t just fail to be terrible, which, admittedly, might alone be worth a sigh of relief for fans of the franchise. In the extremely capable hands of Bruckner, who has previously wowed horror fans and critics with THE NIGHT HOUSE (2020) and THE RITUAL (2017), it’s a beautiful rebirth.
Bruckner does for Hellraiser what David Gordon Green did for Halloween in 2018. He gifts fans a new entry in a beloved franchise that is truly worthy of its predecessors and should help create a new legion of younger fans discovering this sadistic yet sexy world for the first time.
He also sets the stage for the franchise’s continued success, leaving audiences salivating for more.
You can watch Hellraiser on Hulu in the U.S. beginning October 7, 2022.