Bursting out of the gate on Hulu, the reboot of the Hellraiser franchise is here. While it attempts to please fans of the original franchise, it does so with the enthusiasm of a flaccid erection.
I will be nice and start off with the good. The dialogue and acting are all done pretty well, especially when compared to some of the more cringey and downright goofy sequels this franchise has seen. This reboot aims to eliminate all camp from its DNA, which I can sympathize with. What is the use in making horror if people are only there to laugh at it? Secondly, the twist at the end is believable and just interesting enough to hold your attention through the finale. And lastly, the summoning itself of the cenobites is very moody and atmospheric. Slowly the world shifts around the victim, almost like they are entering a dream-land, bathing the world in cold blues with lots of soft lights that warp as if behind water.
Now onto the bad, which is the rest of the film. The main character. I could not care less about the main character. We are supposed to sympathize with her because she is a recovering addict who then relapses, but throughout the film we see her do nothing but scream at, and bitch at, the people who try to help her. Here is a pro-tip when writing a character that is meant to be sympathetic; do not have them insult the supporting character by attacking their financial situation while also mooching off of said financial situation, it makes them look like ungrateful brats. As for the rest of the characters, they are all more sympathetic than her. Any one of them could have taken their place and made the story a lot more compelling. Instead we get an ungrateful druggie getting her friends and family accidentally sent to a torture realm one by one.
The real villain of the story ends up being revealed in the last quarter of the film, which, while satisfying, leaves viewers following the random, haphazard journey of the characters across the middle of the film as they get teased incessantly with insinuations of torture and body horror, but no actual body horror. If the main villain’s insinuation of pulling strings behind their backs were more present throughout the rest of the film, just little hints and nods, it would take away from the surprise, but it would make the rest of the film more compelling, and this movie definitely needed a more compelling through-line.
We dive back and forth between the main character’s motivations; from finding her brother who inadvertently gets taken by the cenobites early on, to finding Roland Voight, introduced in the very beginning, to eventually the main character trying to save herself from being taken, eventually to the reveal of the true antagonist. When she does finally figure out the configuration and gets to choose her prize, she refuses to resurrect her brother, Matt, destroying the one potential through-line and making us wonder what the point of any of this is, until it sequel-baits us with the very last scene.
Another major problem are the cenobites, who feel like they are third-rung in this film. While they were revealed to be slaves later on in other films down the line, this one starts off with them looking and acting like powerless slaves that cannot reason, and mindlessly hunt down their victims like mindless automatons. In the original first two classic films, the cenobites could barter with their victims. If they wanted something, you could strike a deal with them. Here they are just wolves chasing whoever gets cut after solving one of the phases of the lament configuration. They feel cheap and less intimidating.
The “Lament Configuration” itself has also changed. No longer does someone meet the cenobites merely by solving it, instead they have to also get pricked by blades that eject after each phase of the configuration is solved. This is a fine concept, except the rules for how they are summoned, what happens to those who summon them, and why they are seen is extremely muddied. First we are shown that the cenobites are only visible to someone who either solves the phase or gets cut by the box. When they are cut, they become lethargic, almost tranquilized, and fall into a semi-coma, the world warping around them to appear more like the cenobites realm. So it is clearly established the cenobites attack people’s souls, or their minds, as they are sucked into their dimension mentally/spiritually, only for it to be revealed that nope; people who did not solve the phase or were cut can see them now for some reason as well. Oh yea, and apparently even if you are cut, you can somehow choose someone else instead, making the whole “if you get cut you are dead meat” plot-thread entirely meaningless.
The plot of the movie becomes dizzyingly confusing as rules bend and out-right break, motivations switch at the drop of a hat, and there seems to be no concrete reason for the main character to hold on to the lament configuration, and yet she does. This is all just to get them to the house where they do not have to pay more money for permits to film outside in cities and instead can just use sets and single-location shooting, for a climax that is all-but satisfying. I kid, I kid; but the finale does feel kind of arbitrary, even if they do go out of their way to explain it. But, in the end, the main character learned nothing, the secret antagonist gets his wishes, and we are left dissatisfied with the amount of body horror.
From the first “kill” all the way to the very last, this movie takes its pleasure from teasing the viewer with gore, and never actually delivering. All the kills happen in the background or bathed in extremely poor lighting. While I did say the dimension of the cenobites was moody, I did not say it was well lit. We can barely make out character’s faces, let alone the gore effects that I assume CGI artists and practical effects artists spent a while making, because I could not tell. I actually had to go into my TV’s options and change the settings, increasing the brightness and reducing the contrast, in order to get a slightly better visual. Your movie should never force the viewer to change their TV settings in order to see what is happening on the screen, not even “Aliens vs Predator Requiem” made me do that, and that movie was notoriously dark.
As for the kills; where are they? The closest we get to actual body horror is at the very end, where we see the secret antagonists skin peeled off and wrapped around a device. The rest of the movie we see the victims enter the cenobites’ realm, maybe see a couple of chains, and then cut to one of the surviving characters. It is borderline insulting.
Now, a less intelligent person might say “All’s your care about is duh gore and duh body-count!” And I would counter that with the fact that the only reason the cenobites are ‘scary’ or ‘intimidating’ in the first place is specifically because of the untold amounts of ways they can warp, mutilate, and torture you.
I get that they were going for a more subdued and ‘creepy’ aesthetic, but when the very first film starts out with a literal soup of meat that gradually transforms into a skeleton that builds itself into a skinless human as its opening act:
You have quite a hard act to follow, and one you should at least attempt to match. Hellraiser 1 was punctuated by 2 great effects scenes; the resurrection of Frank, and the death of Frank, which highlighted both the beginning and ending of the film. The movie is a classic because of its effects, and its effectiveness at portraying the grotesque, humiliatory, and raw ways in which it human biology is manipulated.
This reboot has neither the ballsy confidence of its predecessors, nor the moody atmospherics of other films, in which we only get glimpses of suspense instead of actual suspense. What we got was a film that leaves you mildly intrigued but mostly bored; the gravest sin of all for a Hellraiser film.
I will hold out hope that the sequel they baited ends up being a far more satisfying film; both visually and story-wise, this was a dud of a reboot. If the director here is the one behind said sequel, I will have a very low amount of hope.