Every horror movie is about pain, but only the “Hellraiser” series is about sadomasochism — the electricity and agony of it, the higher calling of it. “Hellraiser,” a reboot of the franchise that began in 1987 and has given us nine sequels (time flies when you’re having fun imagining yourself being tortured for fun), is a movie that honors the transgressive tug of Clive Barker’s 1986 novella “The Hellbound Heart.” But it takes a long time for the new “Hellraiser” to get to what devotees of the series would call the good stuff. When it does, however, the movie doesn’t hold back. Flesh is torn and flayed, flesh is peeled and sliced, flesh gets split wide open with mystical mechanical devices. The film’s brutal final act may put you in mind of such queasy landmarks of cinematic mutilation as “Audition,” “The Cell,” the “Saw” series, the 2018 remake of “Suspiria,” and David Cronenberg’s recent return to body horror “Crimes of the Future.”
Yet even before it reaches that garish under-the-skin climax, the new “Hellraiser” could be considered one of the more perverse fright films in recent memory. It’s a walk-on-the-wild-side horror movie that’s being released by Disney, and if you’re wondering how Disney — apart from the fact that they own everything in sight, including Hulu, the platform that’s streaming “Hellraiser” — would now be associating its brand with a horror series devoted to the nightmare assertion of outré sexuality, the answer is: “Hellraiser,” for most of its two-hour running time, actually does feel kind of like a Disney movie…except for those moments when it seems to have been taken over by the spirit of the Marquis de Sade.
What marks the characters — Riley (Odessa A’zion), who’s like a rebellious lit major, plus her lunkhead boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey), her overprotective brother Matt (Brandon Flynn), and his boyfriend Colin (Adam Faison) — as “Disney characters” is that they possess none of the hidden edges or curlicues of the characters in, say, “Bodies Bodies Bodies.” They’re youth-movie ciphers; they have almost no intrinsic interest. For an hour or so, as it’s setting things up, the movie is close to deadly. The characters here really are walking meat-in-waiting. The movie could have been called “Bodies Bodies Bodies (with Chain Hooks).”
Then again, the “Hellraiser” films never were worth a whole lot on that score. Pinhead, the series’ solemn S&M ringleader/aesthete/guru (that white bald head of his, with its chessboard lines and perfectly ordered rows of pins, was like a scowling art installation), became a kinky Freddy Krueger figure, an unholy mascot of megaplex terror. But who remembers, or cared about, the people he infected with his virus of pleasure-pain?
In the new “Hellraiser,” Pinhead — more properly referred to as the Hell Priest — arrives with a team of fellow ghost-demons of kink, who lend new meaning to the phrase “exposed body parts” (one of them has a spine laid open as if somebody were performing surgery on it). One saunters around like a space-alien geisha, one is like a robot with the Nun’s rictus-grin jaws, and one resembles a Francis Bacon portrait of a mouth frozen open in mid-scream. As for Pinhead, he’s been reconfigured as a soft-creepy-doll version of himself, with star-child eyes and a voice of sexually ambiguous velvet. That the Hell Priest is now played by an actress, Jamie Clayton, takes the movie, in some ways, closer to the spirit of Barker’s novel. Yet as Pinhead and his fellow specters skulk around, they’re such a precious set of creatures that I half-expected to hear someone say, “Collect all five.”
The film stops dead in its tracks whenever they aren’t on screen, as the only plot seems to be Riley’s desire to get her brother back after he’s absorbed into the cosmic painsphere. Trevor, who may know more than he lets on, says things like, “How did you get it to change, like, from the cube into that?” He’s talking, of course, about Lemarchand’s Box, the engraved mechanical puzzle box that’s the emblem of the “Hellraiser” series — it unlocks pain from pleasure, leading your soul into a new world. Even the tricky logistics of the box are, in a way, a metaphor. It starts off as a cube that, if you click the right knobs and spin the correct corners, exposes and rearranges its hidden parts, at which point it’s no longer square. Just the way you’re no longer square once you get a taste for kicks that have been twisted into forbidden shapes.
The new “Hellraiser” works as metaphor, as flesh-annihilating spectacle. Yet it doesn’t quite work as a story. And maybe that’s because there’s something dated about the film’s vision of pain-freak sensuality as a one-way ticket to the inferno. The film wants to take you to hell and back, but these days that sounds like something you’d find on a hook-up app.
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