I know it's now common to slam any Hellraiser film that came out after the first two, but I always liked Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. Sure, it's silly and turns Pinhead into more of a Freddy Krueger type killer, but it is a lot of fun. It's the fourth one that kills it for me, although I know some revisionists are trying to convince themselves that Hellraiser: Inferno is a good movie. I consider that delusion arising from the hope that things could get better. It wasn't even meant to be a Hellraiser film, and just had Pinhead slipped in to make a buck.
This series has gone on forever, each film getting further and further away from the mythology of the Clive Barker original. Out of 10 movies only three were worth watching, making Hellraiser even less successful that Friday the 13th, which is dismissed by many critics as being cynical bloodletting for money. On top of that a remake has been threatened for years, going through various writers and directors, with the project frequently stopping and starting. The problem being that the only thing worse than another terrible sequel is a remake that doesn't even have a soul for the Cenobites to tear apart. That is why after all this time it was surprising to find that anyone could breathe life back into this series, but director David Bruckner, along with writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski revising a script originally by David S. Goyer, manages to pull it off.
Riley (Odessa A'zion) is a recovering addict living with her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn), his boy friend Colin (Adam Faison) and their roommate Nora (Aoife Hinds). Riley has just begun dating Trevor (Drew Starkey), a guy she knows from her rehab program. Matt is against it, fearing that Trevor's impending relapse will take Riley along with him. It's not unfounded as, desperate for money, she agrees to a scheme Trevor cooks up to rob a warehouse full of a deceased rich man's possessions.
What they find is a puzzle box that had been purchased six years prior by Roland Voight (Goran Visnjic), an infamously debauched billionaire. It turns out that solving the box causes a blade to appear, and whoever's blood it takes becomes a sacrifice to it - one that is claimed by demons called Cenobites, led by the Priest (Jamie Clayton) and serving their god Leviathan. The Cenobites, through Leviathan, offer gifts to those who solve all the configurations of the box, only they come with a high price. Riley, in an effort to get Matt back after the Cenobites take him, tries to work her way through the configurations, and in doing so becomes a target of the demons herself.
I know the main focus people have had on this movie is that the Priest (no longer Pinhead - a name Clive Barker never gave the character, and also hated) is played by a transgender female actress. Most people are familiar with Doug Bradley's interpretation of the character from the original Hellraiser through most of its sequels. The Priest was a minor demon from Barker's original novella, The Hellbound Heart, and was described as being modified to the point that it was sexless. The only reason Pinhead came to the forefront is the makeup on Butterball, who was supposed to be the leader of the Cenobites for the film, prevented the actor from speaking, thus making it necessary for Bradley to say the lines.
Butterball is not in this, but another memorable Cenobite from the original, the Chatterer (Jason Liles) is. The others, known as the Gasp (Selino Lo), the Weeper (Yinka Olorunnife) and the Asphyx (Zachary Hing), are new, although the Gasp is similar in form to the female Cenobite from Hellraiser and its sequel. The design of the creatures is much different as well. Gone is the leather fetish wear, as each one of them is naked with various bits of flesh flayed away from their muscles and numerous devices piercing their skin. While there are still chains and such that appear out of nowhere to torture the victims, the Cenobites represent Cronenbergian body horror much more than extreme sadomasochism in this new version. Happily Bruckner never lingers on them, leaving a lot to the viewer imagination, and even the Priest has about as many lines as Pinhead did in the original. They don't bother having long conversations with their victims.
Unfortunately, for all the fresh ideas that were brought forward in this, the fact that it was filmed in Belgrade, Serbia sets off alarms that this would have some of the direct-to-video cheapness of the sequels. That's not totally unfounded, as filming in Serbia and Bulgaria was done as a substitute for Boston, and the filming locations are kept to a minimum.
The other problem is, except for Goran Visnjic playing a delightful villain, the main cast is annoying. Aoife Hinds is probably the least grating of the bunch, but the only reason she seems to even be there is to be one of the victims. The worst offender is Odessa A'Zion, and it's not just because the role of Riley seems to be written as a stereotypical addict, with her addiction not even figuring into anything that happens or her interaction with the Cenobites. The way she talks, the mop of unruly hair that is just one dye job away of emulating Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll and just the general approach to playing the character doesn't make her likeable. I can't say she's a terrible actress, because she pulls off the twist at the end with a good dose of understated emotion, but I just wish that had come through more during the rest of the movie.
It is to Bruckner's credit that, although I pretty much couldn't care about what happened to any of the main characters, he still manages to make a movie where I cared about the story right up until the end, and was quite satisfied with it as well. I was happy to see references to both of the original films that were integral to the plot and not just fan service, but if there is a next movie it needs to have protagonists to where it actually feels like a sacrifice when the box is fed rather than just a sigh of relief that that person is finally out of the movie.
Time: 121 minutes
Starring: Odessa A'zion, Drew Starkey, Adam Faison, Jamie Clayton
Director: David Bruckner