Jamie Clayton as Pinhead in 'Hellraiser' (2022) with a 3.5 star rating

Review: ‘Hellraiser’ Hits the Nail On the Head

The latest Hulu original is a worthy reboot of horror’s kinkiest franchise

The Hellraiser series has always been the dark horse of horror franchises: too baroque for a popcorn-munching slasher and too trashy to be taken seriously by the mainstream, but for those at the center of a very specific venn diagram of tastes, it has such sights to show you. In the first two films, anyway. The past three decades (!) of increasingly-slipshod sequels (the last two were produced by The Weinstein Company exclusively to retain the rights) have dimmed the Hellraiser brand somewhat, but its bloody, leather-bound heart has never lost its allure. Now Hulu has given Hellraiser the reboot treatment with The Night House director David Bruckner at the helm. Bruckner attempts to combine the procedural, character-driven storytelling he applied to The Night House with the visceral gore and potent eroticism central to Clive Barker’s original novels. Although it occasionally gets too bogged down in the former and doesn’t go far enough in the latter, Hellraiser is a worthy reboot of horror’s kinkiest franchise. 

The film doesn’t waste a lot of time getting us to the kink, either, as we are dropped into the middle of a decadent orgy at the mansion of shady billionaire (aren’t they all?) Roland Voight (a terrific Goran Visnjic). Voight lures a naïve party-goer (Kit Clarke) to a secret chamber and hands him an intricate puzzle box to solve. “Will I get a prize?,” he asks flirtatiously, “No, but I will.” The box is at the center of a dark religion whose adherents seek ultimate sensation as they explore the boundary between pleasure and pain. No sooner does a spike thrust from the box to pierce the young man’s hand than the religion’s mutilated priests — the Cenobites — emerge from a hellish portal to accept Voight’s blood offering and grant his ultimate desire. 

We don’t immediately learn what that desire is, only that years later the box will fall into the hands of Riley (a compelling Odessa A’zion), a recovering addict attempting to get her life back on track under the loving but reproachful gaze of her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn). Matt particularly disapproves of Riley’s boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey, serving Dirtbag Chris Evans), who offers to cut Riley in on the theft of an intricate puzzle box stashed in an art dealer’s warehouse. After accidentally cutting his hand on the box, Matt is taken by the Cenobites, and to save her brother Riley must follow the box’s origins back to Voight’s mansion and uncover its sinister secrets.

The film has managed to consolidate the disparate scraps of lore from the last ten Hellraiser films into a coherent mythology. The box has five stages, or “configurations,” each requiring a human sacrifice to advance to the next. At the final configuration, the supplicant is granted a boon from the Cenobites. Voight received his reward six years ago, and for Riley it could be the only chance to save her brother.

While this premise brings much-needed cohesion to a film series that has often played fast and loose with plot, there’s a video-gamey quality to how it all progresses that can at times feel tedious. Bruckner is clearly enamored by the architecture and mechanisms of this world, and spends a lot of time on shots of people folding, twisting, and snapping the box into its next configuration. The most erotic scene in the film, in fact, is a shot of a finger tentatively probing a hole in the box (heh). And while the props and production design are admittedly impressive, the puzzles are not really what this series is all about.

The heart of the film is of course the Cenobites, led by a new, gender-ambiguous Pinhead (here called “The Priest”) played by Jamie Clayton. Clayton, voice digitally altered to a demonic purr, plays The Priest with a languid intensity as she and her crew of leather-clad body-modifiers terrorize Riley and her friends. The updated, Giger-esque Cenobite designs by makeup team Josh and Sierra Russell are as grotesque as they are intricate. The pearlescent detail on various piercings and pins embedded in their flesh suggests an element of decadence to their gruesome deeds. Appropriately florid dialogue by The Night House writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski adds several more one-liners to a famously grandiloquent series (“Save your breath for screaming”). Fans will be glad to see the return of The Chatterer (Jason Liles), whose teeth are more than mere decoration; and The Gasp (Selina Lo), a more visceral (literally) reimagining of the open-throated design sported by Grace Kirby in the original. 

On the whole Hellraiser gets high marks in the gore department. Flesh is flayed, parts are pierced, and torsos torn; all done with lovingly-applied practical effects. Though it never reaches the blood-drenched frenzy of the originals, there’s still plenty here to make you squirm. 

But this being a Hellraiser movie, pain is only half of the equation in the pursuit of ultimate sensation. The film industry has struggled with depicting sex for years, and while there is indeed sex in this film, it’s not particularly sexy. There’s an undeniable sensuality to the way Clayton portrays Pinhead as a stern disciplinarian, but scenes of Riley and Trevor going at it feel more like checking a box than an attempt at honest-to-god eroticism. 

If there’s one major component missing from this Hellraiser, it’s a sense of camp. In the best films of the series there’s always at least one character who relishes in the Cenobites’ depravity, be it Frank in the original (“Come to daddy”), or Dr. Channard in Hellbound (“And to think: I hesitated”). Visnjic is magnetic to watch as Voight, but he plays the character with more resentment than glee. I don’t knock the film too hard on this point, however, as camp is something modern American art has been sorely lacking for a while now. Overall I enjoyed this reboot quite a lot — easily ranking in the top three — and would welcome future installments that push the transgressive elements even further. Oh Hulu, so eager to play, so reluctant to admit it.


Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This review was made possible by donations to the Fall Movie Fundraiser for Indigenous Abortion Access. Missed your chance to donate? You still can!

Kristen Grote is a freelance film and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd.