Perhaps more so than any other genre, horror has the power to produce iconic images that take on lives of their own. Regardless of whether you’re familiar with their source material, these unnerving images can stick to your subconscious and conjure up a lifetime’s worth of nightmares.
In the case of 1987’s Hellraiser, the image of the pale, pierced demon Pinhead (Doug Bradley) in black, BDSM-style leather seemed to come out of a modern mythos steeped in goth-punk culture. As Pinhead’s eyes followed me around video stores and cardboard cutouts of the character loomed over me at horror conventions, I imagined that entering his world was some kind of taboo ritual reserved for Satan worshippers. When I finally watched the original Hellraiser, I was surprised to find it more akin to Universal monster movies of the 1930s and ’40s than the horror films of its own era. Its hellish imagery is used in service of an old-fashioned, twisted romance that seems like it erupted from Edgar Allan Poe’s pen.
Unfortunately, the Hulu reimagining of the film focuses on the iconic imagery while delivering a dull, razor-thin story that fades into the background. At times, it shows promise of being a timely, thoughtful update, but the revelation of its potential feels like too little, too late.
Odessa A’zion stars as Riley, a recovering addict living under the protective eye of her well-adjusted brother, Matt (Brandon Flynn), his boyfriend, Colin (Adam Faison), and their friend Nora (Aoife Hinds). Here, the film bears some resemblance to the original with its focus on two siblings, one of whom maintains stability while the other grows more reckless. However, neither one of them evolves in compelling ways like the siblings in the original. And the new characters feel like little more than pretty twentysomethings cast to reel in audiences of younger generations.
Riley’s boyfriend, Trevor (Drew Starkey), whom she admits makes her weak with his macho good looks, ropes her into stealing a piece of art, which turns out to be the Lamentation Configuration puzzle box — the major MacGuffin of the Hellraiser franchise. Riley fidgets with it long enough to summon the Cenobites, demonic creatures who whisk her brother away to hell. She enlists Trevor, Colin and Nora to help find him in what feels like a Scooby-Doo episode where this mystery gang ultimately discovers that humans are the real monsters after all.
To clarify the reboot’s comparative lack of imagination, bear in mind that the original film’s setup involves a hedonistic woman (Clare Higgins) luring men back to her home so her resurrected brother-in-law — and former lover — can absorb their flesh and rebuild his body.
Director David Bruckner’s previous film, The Night House, seems like the perfect predecessor to a Hellraiser remake with its similar exploration of seduction, sacrifice and the supernatural, but he doesn’t seem as interested in plumbing those depths here.
The world of the original Hellraiser feels lived-in and haunted by human troubles while the remake seems like a mere playground for the Cenobites. Although this production is much more gothic and grand, it doesn’t open up to expand upon the themes of the first film, which is all the more frustrating amid what seems like the perfect time to do so. Although it admirably features a gay relationship along with trans actor Jamie Clayton in the role of Pinhead, the film doesn’t say much of anything about queer culture. But perhaps a simple embrace is more appropriate now. As the AV Club’s Tegan O’Neil wrote: “Whereas most horror films traffic in conservative sexual mores, Hellraiser represented something different. It wasn’t a film about the evils of premarital sex, it was a film about sexual politics in the era of the AIDS epidemic, written and directed by a gay man with firsthand experience as a hustler. The message isn’t abstinence; it’s safe sex. If you can’t control your desire, you run the risk of being destroyed, or worse, turned into a terrible monster. The Cenobites’ BDSM costumes are a funhouse mirror of BDSM culture, a reminder of the importance of safety and consent.”
In the remake, desire is explored through addiction. As one character pleads to be rehabilitated from indulging in the Cenobites’ dark pleasures, Pinhead says: “There is no retreat. Once a threshold has been crossed, all you can do is search for greater thresholds.” That’s a pretty good metaphor for the dangers of gateway drugs — or the similarly addictive reaches of cyberspace. Unfortunately, it doesn’t arrive until somewhere around the last 20 minutes of the film.
This new Hellraiser succeeds in giving us darkly beautiful creatures and a creepy world to wrap ourselves up in on a cold October night. But it’s the kind of scary story that fizzles out like the campfire by which it’s told, and it fades from our memories without ever haunting our dreams.