There was a time not too long ago when it was reasonable to dread horror sequels. Between Halloween, Nightmare On Elm Street, Friday The 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Omen, Saw, Paranormal Activity and a whole lot more, there is a rough history of genre brands going from creative, entertaining fare to pure garbage with slap-dash follow-ups.
In the last few years, however, we’ve seen that reputation start to make a 180 degree turn. The new age of the legacyquel has thus far worked magic for David Gordon Green’s Halloween movies and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s Scream, thanks in large part to the fact that the reins of the respective franchises were put in the hands of wonderfully talented filmmakers with special visions for the properties (shocking how that happens!). Now, what has worked well for those two series has brought back Hellraiser in a fascinating way, as director David Bruckner has crafted a new chapter that plays by the rules of the canon and pairs them with an exciting, well-structured story that allows the movie to provide fans with what they are looking and hoping for from it.
Written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, who previously worked with David Bruckner on The Night House (a.k.a. the best horror movie of 2021), the new Hellraiser centers on Riley (Odessa A'zion), a young woman who is working to get her life together. She is a recovering addict who is committed to sobriety, but she is also hurt by the fact that her brother/roommate, Matt (Brandon Flynn), doesn’t express a lot of trust in her and her decisions.
In his defense, Riley does make some questionable decisions – a big one being her relationship with her new boyfriend, Trevor (Drew Starkey). While friendly and helpful, Trevor is kind of a sketchy dude, as perfectly evidenced by the fact that he enlists the protagonist’s help in pulling off a heist. Through his job, he learns of a safe being kept in a shipping container that is unguarded, and he asks for Riley’s help breaking in and stealing the contents.
Their mission is successful in the sense that they manage to open the safe… but less successful in the sense that the only thing they find inside is a mysterious, gold puzzle box.
Riley ends up breaking her sobriety when celebrating the robbery, which leads to her having a massive row with Matt – but her being kicked out of her apartment turns out to be the least of her problems. When her sibling accidentally ends up solving the first configuration of the puzzle box and is cut by a blade that springs out of the device, he inexplicably vanishes. Knowing that Matt’s disappearance has something to do with the mysterious device she stole, Riley enlists Trevor’s help in both figuring out what it is and who it originally belonged to.
Hellraiser’s deadly puzzle box is back, and its many configurations are used to create a smart structure and strong narrative.
As Hellraiser unfolds, it’s revealed that there are a total of six puzzle box configurations, and one of the movie’s best calls is implementing them into the pacing and structure of the narrative. Each big development in the protagonist’s journey is paired with a puzzle box solve, and this is done in such a way that it builds constant suspense about who is going to be the next victim without ever feeling predictable or overplotted. And while audiences who are aware of the past films are perpetually 10 steps ahead of the characters – being fully aware of what the puzzle box is and who the Cenobites are – it still finds ways to surprise and further develop the canon (this is particularly true via Goran Višnjić’s Roland Voight role, though going into greater detail would require a trip into spoiler territory, which I won’t be doing in this review).
While it’s not a legacyquel that does the traditional move of bringing back characters from the original, Hellraiser does what the best films of that ilk do: take all of the most important “rules” and key elements of the universe and use them to create a fresh story that doesn’t just feel like a rehash of what fans have already seen.
Hellraiser gets some impressive performances from a cast of mostly up-and-comers.
One of the more surprising aspects of David Bruckner’s Hellraiser is that it doesn’t feature any big names in the cast that could be accentuated in the marketing, but watching the film, it doesn’t really need it. Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski have crafted an ensemble of interesting characters where nobody feels like pure cannon fodder, and the actors deliver engaging performances that make one hope that they get more opportunities in the future.
As the film’s protagonist, Odessa A'zion is certainly the principal standout, as she is gripping and empathetic as Riley – finding a way to make her both strong and vulnerable simultaneously as she deals with emotional demons from her past and the literal ones in her present. Drew Starkey is surprisingly and wonderfully complex as Trevor, who is a character perpetually vacillating on the trust meter, and immense credit goes to all of the Cenobite performers, led by Jamie Clayton’s Pinhead a.k.a. The Priest, who are all nightmare inducing and perfectly horrifying (obviously immense credit also belongs to the genius makeup and special effects artists who turned each of them into majestically mutilated monsters).
You expect gruesome gore from any Hellraiser movie, and this one definitely delivers.
Onboard for more than just smart plotting and character development, Hellraiser fans are particularly going to be invested in the horror of it all, and nobody is going to be left disappointed. David Bruckner and his teams of filmmakers have such sights to show you, as zipping chains with hooks that dig into flesh are just the tip of the sadomasochistic insanity iceberg, and it gets visceral enough to generate sympathy pains. Squeamish audiences are probably already well aware that Hellraiser movies are not made for them, but I’ll emphasize the point anyway: if you’re not a person who enjoys blood and gore in your cinematic experiences, stay the hell away from this movie.
We’ve seen a lot of exceptional horror releases this year thus far, including the aforementioned Scream, Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone, Jordan Peele’s Nope, and Ti West’s X, and David Bruckner’s Hellraiser really drives home how much greatness we’ve been seeing from the genre. It’s a sequel that breaths brilliant new life into a dying franchise, and while one wishes that the film could be enjoyed on the big screen amongst a screaming, packed audience, it’s arriving as a terrific streaming treat as we get closer and closer to Halloween 2022.
NJ native who calls LA home and lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran who is endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.
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