With Halloween around the corner, Hulu has celebrated the occasion by releasing “Hellraiser” for the month of October. Like many other horror franchises, Hellraiser has fallen victim to endless sequels (over 30 of them if one includes video games, documentaries, and shorts) that have cheapened a once interesting and frightening concept into something lame and unrecognizable.
Fortunately, the creators of the newest “Hellraiser” followed the example of another franchise reboot of an iconic horror franchise on Hulu, “Prey,” and did away with the storylines that have accrued over the decades to get back to basics. It is a straightforward, sober horror movie that relies far more on mood and fear than it does on built-in nostalgia.
The film’s protagonist is Riley, a 20-something woman recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. She lives with her brother Matt and his partner Collin, who both try to support her. Underemployed and low on funds, she and a friend called Trevor break into a rich man’s shipping container, in which they discover a puzzle box. She takes the box and, in a drug-induced stupor, ends up activating it, summoning Pinhead and the Cenobites, a group of deformed demons who torture and mutilate those who use the box.
Because Riley summons Cenobites, many of the people around her are put in mortal danger. For the rest of the film, she is trying to save those people and learn more about the puzzle box—which she obsessively holds onto despite what it does.
While not exactly boring, the plot’s pace is rather slow for the first two-thirds of the film—and not in the ominous, creepy way of a good horror flick, but more in the meandering, pointless way. While some of this features visually interesting scenes of Pinhead and Cenobites tearing apart a victim, most of it is filled with clunky dialogue and poor acting as Riley and Trevor try to figure out what’s happening. It’s only in the last third of the movie that Riley and the audience finally get some answers about what the box is and who the Cenobites are.
Generally, the slow plot development might suggest there is room for more character development and world-building, but that really isn’t the case in this film. None of the characters have much personality beyond Riley being a recovering addict, Matt and Collin being gay and compassionate, Trevor being a good-looking dunce, and Pinhead being sadistic and cold.
While the characters are diverse and representative in one sense, their surface diversity is all we see and it doesn’t suffice to explain their motivations, even on a basic level. The Cenobites only attack when people activate the puzzle box, yet there’s nothing about the box that compels people to touch it. Perhaps Riley holds on to the box in the hopes of reversing the harm it’s done, but this still doesn’t account for the fact that she keeps it on her person everywhere she goes, endangering everyone around her.
This is problematic because it affects the deeper themes of the movie. In the original “Hellraiser” from 1987, people conjured Pinhead and the Cenobites because they were tempted by the idea of their power and what doing so might be able to do for them. Sin and inner darkness were key forces driving characters. In this “Hellraiser,” the main forces pushing most of the characters are stupidity and bad luck. Thus, the misfortunes that befall them are similar to those of the “Final Destination” movies, where people die more or less randomly.
In the “Final Destination movies,” however, dying randomly was the point. It suggested that death couldn’t be avoided and that it was folly to try. In “Hellraiser,” it’s difficult to know what the film is trying to say. At most, the puzzle box and the Cenobites it summons work out as an allegory for Riley’s addiction, which has a strong hold on her despite hurting those closest to her. As for the evil and darkness depicted in the movie, more will have to be brought out in a sequel which is hinted at in the final moments of the film.
That said, despite the uneven plot, flat characters, and underdeveloped themes, “Hellraiser” succeeds in the most important element of a horror film: It is scary and dark. Some of this is achieved with the judicious use of gore, but most of this is done with compelling visuals and a serious tone. The prospect of deformed demons delighting in running chains through people and flaying them alive is horrific, and the idea that this could be brought about by a misguided soul playing with a mysterious puzzle box is beyond disturbing.
Overall, “Hellraiser” may not offer much to think about, but it does offer plenty to be scared about. And for any fan of the horror genre or person looking to celebrate Halloween properly, that’s all that matters.