David Bruckner’s The Night House wrings horror from a sort of psychological optical illusion: As a grieving woman played by Rebecca Hall creeps around her lonely home, she catches glimpses and shadows of something unsettling and sinister, somewhere beyond the veil. Bruckner and his screenwriting collaborators Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski therefore seemed ideally suited for a new version of Hellraiser. Clive Barker’s 1987 original, based on his own novella, is a strange and singular creation, unlike just about any horror movie of its time (or any other), but it shares with The Night House a compulsion to peel away layers of humdrum reality and find the gruesome nightmares underneath. (Granted, Barker’s peeling process is a lot wetter and more crackly than Bruckner’s.) Barker’s S&M-tinged mythology is unsettling precisely because his human characters often seek it out, in search of some new, heretofore undiscovered sensuality. The Night House characters are arguably doing the same with their grieving and despair.
One point in favor of Bruckner’s new Hellraiser is that it takes some time before it feels truly lost. A point against is that it takes some time before it does almost anything. Still, barely-recovering addict Riley (Odessa A’zion) is a more immediately compelling character than any of the humans in Barker’s movie, and her conflict with her brother and roommate Matt (Brandon Flynn) has a messy rawness that’s arguably missing from the earlier version’s joyless love triangle. Desperate for cash, fuming at her judgmental brother and involved with a fellow addict named Trevor (Drew Starkey), Riley agrees to break into a long-abandoned storage container and sell its contents. As it turns out, this includes a single item: A strange three-dimensional puzzle box with a series of knife-y surprises. When the box causes Riley to hallucinate and, seemingly, Matt to disappear, she becomes obsessed with tracking down its owner.
It takes close to an hour of this set-up and detective work to lead into what seems to be the main event: Riley, Trevor, Matt’s boyfriend Colin (Adam Faison) and roommate Nora (Aoife Hinds) arriving at a remote mansion owned by a missing rich man—sort of a posh version of Saw or Escape Room. There are some human-laid traps, but moreover, the box has summoned Cenobites, a group of extra-dimensional beings, led by the Hell Priest (Jamie Clayton), known to horror fans, as well as probably some video-box-art connoisseurs, as Pinhead.
What happens next I should not describe, presumably because it would spoil the movie, and also because I’m still confused by it; much of the movie’s drawn-out climax involves slow walking. Sometimes, for a change of pace, there is limping. The movie is part slasher, part creature-feature and part psychological horror, with a healthy portion of everyone’s favorite horror villain: Trauma. All of these approaches have flashes of inspiration; in particular, Hellraiser contains some wonderfully gnarly makeup effects. They are either a throwback to great practical effects of yore, extremely well-integrated computer effects or effects that are just OK but difficult to see. While The Night House utilized rich blacks to paint its shadowy world, Hellraiser looks more like the low-contrast murk that Disney seems to think is the future of cinema.
I wanted very much to enjoy Hellraiser 2022. The first movie leaves room for variation, expansion or reinterpretation, and this certainly isn’t a by-the-numbers remake of the old movie’s plot. (There are many Hellraiser sequels, and this appears to be more of a fresh crack at one of those than a full reboot.) Bruckner has a command of oppressive mood, the Cenobite designs are first-rate and some of the movie’s imagery (like an impossible contraption integrated into one poor human’s body in grisly pursuit of new pleasures) will stay with me for a while. The movie itself, however—the actual sum of these sliced and stretched parts—is elusive, and at times inert. As much attention as Riley draws in the movie’s protracted opening, the rest of her cohort feel like warm bodies necessary to show off the requisite gore.
That gore has its rococo moments, yet Bruckner’s take on the material seems oddly respectful—a horror kiss of death. There are hints of animal desire in early sex scenes between Riley and Trevor, only to have the movie shunt off their coupling in favor of shoe-leather plotting, a mixture of impenetrable and predictable. What’s really lurking at the edge of this story, moreso than unspeakable desire or alternate-dimensional terror, is a bunch of lore, which seems like it would be of greater interest to hardcore Hellraiser fans than anyone else, possibly including the Cenobites. Barker’s Hellraiser is a vivid nightmare; Bruckner’s is a hazy dream.
Director: David Bruckner
Writer: Ben Collins, Luke Piotrowski, David S. Goyer
Starring: Odessa A’zion, Drew Starkey, Brandon Flynn, Adam Faison, Jamie Clayton, Goran Višnjic
Release Date: October 7, 2022
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.