The 2022 remake of Clive Barker’s horror classic is an accidental meta-commentary on its own genre—aiming to explore the furthest regions of experience, and falling far short
“[We are] explorers in the further regions of experience. Of sensation’s rim,” Pinhead (Jamie Clayton) says with lip-licking relish in the 2022 reboot of horror writer Clive Barker’s 1987 supernatural classic Hellraiser.
Pinhead’s sentiment resonates with horror fans because it succinctly sums up the genre’s promises: to show you things other moviegoers fear to see, and make you feel things other moviegoers fear to feel. The monster Cenobite is offering metacommentary for cinephiles. Horror promises to transport you to an exciting, terrifying, out-of-this-world hell.
And if the new movie doesn’t exactly deliver—well, demons in horror films always cheat, don’t they? David Bruckner’s Hellraiser is not a good movie, but its falsehoods are honest in their way.
As longtime Hellraiser fans know, the movies are about a mystical puzzle box. When you solve it, a group of deformed demons called Cenobites show up to put hooks in your flesh and usher you into realms of new sensation. Hopeful devotees summon the Cenobites, hoping for pleasure, but instead get pain, blood, death, and other horror movie staples.
In this reboot, the puzzle box is a bit more complicated than in the first version; it goes through a whole bunch of configurations, each of which requires a blood sacrifice. Recovering alcoholic Riley (Odessa A’zion) and her boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey) steal the box; Riley holds onto it until they can figure out how to sell it. Quickly, one of Riley’s loved ones gets taken, and the rest of the movie follows her attempts to bring them back. To do so, she desperately gathers information about the puzzle, more or less inadvertently solving new configurations as the body count mounts.
The setup isn’t especially complicated. The first scene shows wealthy, oleaginous jerk Mr. Voight (Goran Visnjic) solving the puzzle, and asking the (evil) powers that be for the boon of more. He’s like the moviegoers, who are turning on the horror film as a game or a pastime, hoping to cross exciting frontiers of painful pleasure and pleasurable pain.
Voight’s desires are presented as decadent and creepy, what with all the blood and death. His male pretty-boy victim is seduced, first by an older woman and then by Voight himself, suggesting a connection between grotesque evil and non-normative sexuality. Similarly, it’s Riley’s addiction to alcohol, and her overly enthusiastic enjoyment of rough(ish) sex with Trevor, that makes her vulnerable to the box.
The Cenobites themselves are heavily scarified and pierced, and when they torture there are heavy BDSM associations. In one scene, Pinhead shoves a long needle—taken from the demon’s own skull—into the throat of a woman suspended in chains as she pleads. The camera somehow shows images from inside her organ, as in one of those infamous anatomical porn shots.
Which is to say, the box, as a pastime, is presented as immoral and leading to misery and punishment. Horror is connected to numerous moral panics—drugs, queer sex, pornography, kink. They’re all of a piece: corrupting sinful influences that lead to ruin.
Pinhead’s sentiment resonates with horror fans because it succinctly sums up the genre’s promises: to show you things other moviegoers fear to see, and make you feel things that other moviegoers fear to feel.
Critics have often pilloried horror films in exactly those terms. In the ’80s, for example—when Hellraiser first hit the big screen—the UK (where Clive Barker is from) had a full-blown freakout over horror films like Blood Feast and The Thing. Authorities feared that scenes of gore, and the sensations they provoked, were corrupting children and the less-well-educated. “It’s all right for you middle class cineastes to see [The Texas Chainsaw Massacre], but what would happen if a factory worker in Manchester happened to see it?” wailed the chief censor of the British Board of Film Classification.
The censor’s deepest fears are validated in Hellraiser. Aesthetes who want outré experiences get what they ask for, in the worst sense. When Riley ingests a fistful of unidentified drugs, she doesn’t get a happy trip. She sees the Cenobites coming for her. When anyone plays with that weird puzzle box, they don’t enjoy innocent fun. They go to hell.
Hellraiser (past and present) is a kind of moral-panic-sploitation. It uses the critiques of horror’s decadence as a decadent pleasure in itself. If only watching horror movies actually dropped you into hellfire!
But, alas, it doesn’t. The puzzle box promises to suck you into the game. “Greater delights await!” Pinhead enthuses. But the promise is a lie. “It’s a trick, all of it,” Voight says. He’s supposedly telling his interlocutors not to believe the Cenobites when they promise pleasure or power, because all they deliver is pain. But he’s also reminding viewers that the promise of pain and horror is, literally, a trick. It’s special effects; it’s fake blood; it’s suspension of disbelief in the name of fun. Solving the puzzle means you turn it off and go back to your mundane life, scooping cat litter and asking the dog to stop barking.
Horror’s pleasures aren’t generally visceral. They’re once removed. That’s part of why they’re enjoyable. There’s a lot of horrifying, tearing flesh and repulsive consequences, and you can enjoy them all in the comfort of your own home or movie theater, popcorn in hand.
It’s a relief that the Cenobites aren’t going to come out of the walls at the end of Hellraiser. But it’s also something of a disappointment. Horror films always write checks they can’t cash—or offer you puzzles they can’t solve. That’s perhaps even more so the case when you’re reanimating a beloved franchise.
Hellraiser isn’t the worst horror remake I’ve seen this year—not when The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022) and Firestarter (2022) exist. But it’s not exactly what I’d call good, either. The main character is too pure of heart to be much fun in a film like this, and Bruckner pads the run time out to two hours—mostly because he can’t figure out how to get the characters from point A to point B any quicker. Clayton as Pinhead successfully channels the character’s joyfully lascivious sadism, but everyone else seems adrift and disinterested. Riley keeps screaming, “I don’t know!”—an unfortunately apt mantra for the project as a whole.
Still, the disappointment is fitting in its own way. The Cenobites offer everything, and then fail to deliver. They betray you, because that’s what Cenobites do. A perfect Hellraiser wouldn’t be perfect, because no one beats the puzzle box and gets everything they want. When you turn off the movie and feel that you didn’t get the sensation you asked for—that’s when you can hear Pinhead laughing.