This October marked the release of Hellraiser (2022), a putative reboot of the 1987 horror classic and the eleventh entry into the Hellraiser franchise. It is especially significant for the involvement of creator Clive Barker, who has been absent from Hellraiser films for decades, as their intellectual property owner, Dimension Films, cranked out one direct-to-video mediocrity after another. Barker’s original Hellraiser, by contrast, based on his 1986 literary novella The Hellbound Heart, remains nothing short of a masterpiece. Barker’s direction brought arthouse sensibility and queer eroticism to bear on gross-out splatterpunk imagery at the glorious apex of practical special effects, driven by a story so memorable that it has been retold and reimagined dozens of times. Made with just $1 million, Hellraiser became an instant classic in the genre, with its iconic Pinhead joining the pantheon including Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees, and Freddy Krueger. The film even earned accolades from many normie film critics, who are ordinarily loath to say anything positive about a horror film.
A substantive reboot has been in the works since at least 2006, when Barker announced his intentions to write the film and oversee its production. This fell apart, time and again, due to producer Bob Weinstein’s insistence that the queer splatter fest be sanitized and straightened up for a mainstream teenage audience. But the downfall of the Weinstein brothers, and Barker’s 2020 recapture of cinematic rights, has opened the door for more serious entries into the Hellraiser canon. The new film represents Hellraiser‘s introduction to Generation Z, the so-called zoomers born around the turn of the century. Thirty-five years after Barker’s startling vision first debuted, his mythology once more offers itself up for a new generation to decide whether they recognize their fears and anxieties in the curious figure of the demon with pins protruding from his head, promising the tantalizing curse of fulfilling one’s ultimate desires.
Fertile Ground For The Seeds Of Torment
The original Hellraiser draws influence from gothic literary figures like Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe, horror auteurs like Dario Argento and David Cronenberg, the crimson theatricality of the Grand Guignol theater, and Barker’s own stage exploits in the transgressive Dog Company. As scholar Giorgio Paolo Campi observes, the 1987 film bears the deliberate marks of the underground counterculture percolating in the London of Barker’s formative years, specifically punk rock, queer nightlife, BDSM, and the body modification scene. Critic Mark Derry calls it “an S&M rewrite of the Faust legend,” while scholar Lúcio Reis Filho dubs the film “a sadomasochistic take on the myth of Pandora’s box.” But above all else, Hellraiser is a love story, albeit one suitable for its age.
The Hellbound Heart begins with an epigram from seventeenth century metaphysical poet John Donne: “I long to talk with some old lover’s ghost / Who died before the god of love was born.” The story follows Julia and Larry Cotton (named Rory in the novella) taking possession of the latter’s gloomy family home, hoping to salvage a marriage “stale like the house,” as the screenplay puts it, and establish a nuclear family firmly anchored by the four walls of 55 Lodovico Street. Larry is childish and naïve, sexually inept, and largely clueless to the simmering dissatisfaction consuming Julia as he presses toward his staid middle-class dreams. In the screenplay, Barker describes Julia as “beautiful, but her face betrays a barely buried unhappiness. Life has disappointed her… and Larry has been a major part of [her] disappointment.” (Spoilers ahead.)
In the parlance of today, Larry is a cuck. Beyond her ordinary middle-class disaffection, Julia is haunted by an adulterous encounter years old with Larry’s brother, Frank, consummated in the days before their wedding— in their marital bed, atop the bridal gown, no less. Brother Frank is an archetypal hedonist, scouring the Earth obsessively striving to transcend “the dull round of desire, seduction, and disappointment that had dogged him from late adolescence.” Julia had pursued the opposite course, a monogamous heterosexual relationship, but later came to rue her wedding day for “the promise it had failed to fulfill,” leaving her similarly forlorn, but fixed within four walls. In the film, their tryst has scarcely concluded when Frank bemoans: “It’s never enough!” Julia, by contrast, is hooked on their impossible romance, yet similarly doomed to remain unsated. The Hellraiser story, then, revolves around the unlikely symmetry between globetrotting sybarite and sedate housewife, as they pursue, in their own ways, the fool’s errand of reaching desire’s definitive end.
Following her wedding to Larry, Julia settles down for a life of quiet yearning, and Frank resumes his relentless roaming, obsessed with rumors of a metaphysical puzzle box called the LeMarchand Configuration. To solve it is to summon an order of otherworldly deities who demolish all limits to pure satisfaction, opening a doorway “to pleasures no more than a handful of humans had ever known existed, much less tasted—pleasures which would redefine the parameters of sensation…” These beings are the supernatural Cenobites, devotees of the Order of the Gash, inhabiting a realm where pleasure and pain are indistinguishable. Frank obtains the box, and takes up in the master bedroom of 55 Lodovico Street in the months before Julia and Larry’s arrival, working frantically to summon them. Soon enough, he receives the ultimate punishment: his deepest desires come to pass.
Explorers In The Further Regions Of Experience
The appearance of the Cenobites staggers Frank. Their rotting flesh, disfigured bodies, and ghastly torture instruments defy his earthly conception of extreme pleasure. For all his self-conceit as a transgressor beyond all boundaries, the novella reveals that Frank mainly expected the Cenobites to show up with a legion of naked women looking to party. The beings he encounters instead are “explorers in the further regions of experience” who have progressed far beyond intercourse as humans understand it. Pleasure to them is the most extreme of sensation, attainable by tortures no mortal could survive. They are, as the film’s working title famously put it: “Sadomasochists from Beyond the Grave.”
The novella introduces the as-yet-unnamed franchise star Pinhead in familiar terms: “Every inch of its head had been tattooed with an intricate grid,” writes Barker, “and at every intersection of horizontal and vertical axes a jeweled pin driven through to the bone.” But while the film’s Pinhead presents as a man and speaks with a stentorian boom, in the novella, the Cenobites are “sexless things.” Encountering Pinhead, Frank “had difficulty guessing the speaker’s gender with any certainty,” Barker writes. “Its voice… was light and breathy—the voice of an excited girl.” While the novella says little about the Cenobites’ manner of dress, except that their clothing is interwoven with their mutilated flesh, the film’s costume designer equipped the quartet in BDSM-inspired gear.
In short order, this gruesome quartet whisks Frank away to the land of their god, the Leviathan, where he is ruthlessly tortured until nothing remains of him but stray scraps of flesh and bone. “The Cenobites gave me an experience beyond limits,” he recalls in the film. “Pain and pleasure, indivisible.” But his spirit lingers on in the walls of the room where he exited Earth, so that when Julia arrives at 55 Lodovico, she is assaulted with memories of their tryst, and becomes convinced of his presence within the house. Their inevitable reunion is enabled when Larry, struggling to move in their bed in the front door, cuts himself and sheds blood on the floor, bringing his wayward brother back to life.
The being that stalks the second act of Hellraiser, is not the hunky Frank depicted in the photograph Julia clasps in secret; this Frank is a ghastly skinless monster, craving blood to make himself whole. Julia’s obsession with Frank, however, proves stronger than her initial shock and revulsion at his wretched condition. In the film, a flashback reveals Julia pleading with Frank not to leave her, insisting: “I’ll do anything you want. Anything.” When Frank returns as the horrid creature dubbed “Frank the Monster” in the film’s credits, Julia keeps this vow. To procure the blood he demands, Julia picks up strange men at nearby bars to bring home, murder, and feed to Frank, all while Larry is at work. This arrangement places Larry in grave danger, and before long he has joined the pair’s victims. In a grisly denouement, Frank removes his brother’s skin to wear as his own, allowing him to walk the Earth freely, and evade recapture by the Cenobites. That is, save for the intrusion of one meddling kid.
Some Things Have To Be Endured
The heroine of the original Hellraiser story is a young woman named Kirsty. In the novella she is a nebbish and adoring friend of Larry. In the film, Kirsty is crucially reimagined as Larry’s adoring daughter from another marriage, whose mother is long dead, and who Larry wishes to move in with him and Julia to reform their family in a new home. Both Kistys are distrustful of Julia, and are the first to discover her and Frank’s infernal pact. After confronting Julia and Frank the Monster, Kirsty narrowly escapes with her life—and the LeMarchand Configuration. Kirsty solves the puzzle by accident, and when the Cenobites arrive to claim their new captives, she strikes one of the story’s many bargains: in exchange for her freedom, she will lead them to the escaped Frank. They accept, and the pieces are in place for a final showdown at 55 Lodovico Street. Frank greets Kirsty in Larry’s skin, but fails to fool her for long. She reveals his trick, and Cenobites are close behind. Frank then kills Julia, before the Cenobites whisk him back to his eternity of torment. In the novella, Kirsty is left as the keeper of the box. In the film, it is seized by a winged demon and returned to the merchant who first sold it to Frank, setting up Hellraiser for the first of many sequels.
Kirsty’s survival makes her Hellraiser’s contribution the pantheon of ‘80s horror’s “final girls” first described by scholar Carol J. Clover. In the dramaturgy of 1980s horror, final girls must reject the absent, abusive, or inadequate authority structure imposed on them by the adult world, especially that of father figures. Final girls once believed themselves safe within an orderly world, sheltered by family and state. The arrival of the monster only serves to dramatize their discovery that this was all a fantasy. As their less adept friends drop dead left and right—usually as a result of indulging in drugs, alcohol, or sexual gratification—final girls are forced to figure out what this new world demands of them, incorporate it into their previously naive conception of reality, and confront the threat head-on. In the process, they not only survive, but attain agency as adults, facing a hostile universe on their own two feet, able to navigate the absence of competent authority in their lives. The weight of this common horror narrative, then, comes not from the fantastical intrusion of supernatural killers, but from the banal—everyday dilemmas attendant to coming of age, with which the audience is meant to relate, however unconsciously.
Kirsty, who, in scholar Sarah Trencansky’s words, “ably rises to the challenge of accepting the unbelievable events around her,” is nonetheless not the typical final girl. “Barely twenty,” as the screenplay describes her, instead of a teenager, Kirsty drinks alcohol and engages in sexual activity, behaviors which consigned many of her teenage forebears to death. She also lives on her own, outside of the family home. In Kirsty, we see the family’s oppressive grip, which characterizes much of ‘80s horror, clearly devolving: Kirsty has already escaped, and, as scholar Matthew Sautman points out, must return to the family home for the story’s monsters to harm her. This detail is key; while the Hellraiser franchise is virtually unrivaled in the scope and complexity of the netherworld from which the Cenobites hail, it is close to home, at 55 Lodovico Street, where the real horror resides.
Demons to Some, Angels to Others
While the Cenobites are now synonymous with the Hellraiser franchise, their ghoulish forms cut a slender figure in the original story, receiving roughly seven minutes of screen time in the 1987 film. This should come as no surprise. As scholar Levi Ghyselinck wisely concludes: “Frank and Julia are the real monsters.” Julia’s is certainly the titular “Hellbound heart,” and she is likely the principal Hell-raiser as well. This means the real source of Hellraiser’s horror is not the monstrous world the Cenobites inhabit. Central to the film’s dramatic tension is the dissolution of the nuclear family, landlocked in its lodestone, the family home. The Cotton family’s demise is a fact more stubborn than the Cenobites’ pursuit of them; the harder Larry tries to force his traditional conceptions of family into existence, the more the very foundation of his home rebels. Accordingly, critic Paul Kane notes the film’s direct lineage from English postwar “kitchen sink” realist dramas like Tony Richardson’s Look Back in Anger and A Taste of Honey, which examine the social forces undercutting family life, and their impact on the people forced nonetheless to live together.
Fusing this tradition with the macabre and supernatural, Hellraiser thereby makes a unique contribution to the genre of “domestic horror.” “Hitchcock urges us to ‘put horror back where it belongs, in the family,’” writes critic Gina Wiskar. Heeding this call, domestic horror focuses on “the oppressive, the threatening, the perverse, and the sickening flip side of ‘domestic bliss.’” Traditional horror, as Kane argues, pitted the “moral supremacy of the nuclear family and all it stood for” against external threats. Films like Hellraiser, by contrast, locate the danger precisely within the family itself, and the ground changing underneath its feet, in the “terrible house.” “The image of the ‘terrible house,’” writes critic Robin Wood, “signifies the dead weight of the past crushing the life of the younger generation, the future…” As Hellraiser unfolds, Kirsty must therefore contend quite literally with the weight of dead generations, concentrated in the terrible house at 55 Lodovico Street, the film’s sole site of danger.
Barker has wryly described the original Hellraiser as “Ibsen with monsters.” The Cotton family was so much the centerpiece of the original Hellraiser that, according to franchise writer Peter Atkins, Barker intended Julia to be his Freddy Krueger, before Pinhead surprised his creator by becoming the fan favorite. And it’s hardly a coincidence that so much of the film’s early action revolves around the Cotton’s marital bed, that hallowed cornerstone of the proper family unit, where Larry strives to realize his vision of domestic bliss, oblivious that Julia and Frank have already consummated a union of their own. In a tragically unused line from Barker’s original screenplay, one of the movers struggling to get the mattress up the stairs tells Larry: “Who are you calling a fucking asshole? It’s this bastard bed that’s your fucking problem.”
As critic Scott Jeffrey argues, the original Hellraiser uniquely fuses such domestic horror, rooted in the claustrophobic world of the nuclear family, with cosmic horror, which conversely confronts humans with a vast universe of ghastly alterity and cosmic apathy toward human concerns. While surely a monument to the imagination of Clive Barker, this juxtaposition is above all a reflection of the historical moment that produced the film.
The Worst Nightmare Of All: Reality
So what was really rumbling beneath the foundation of 55 Lodovico Street? The original film’s setting was deliberately vague, given the aspiration of English filmmakers to reach an American audience. The house therefore fell in what franchise writer Peter Atkins dubbed “a country of the imagination” somewhere between England and the United States. In the 1980s, however, this terrain was nonetheless quite common, unified by the dual governing regimes of Thatcherism and Reaganism, constituting what we today call neoliberalism. This governing technique responded to deindustrialization, international capital flight, and declining profit rates by slashing public services, allowing wages to stagnate, and insulating ruling-class financiers from the ravages of the free market. This burden was borne instead by working people caught in a downward spiral of wealth, job security, and purchasing power. Most cruelly of all, this brutal retrenchment came packaged as a celebration of home ownership by the heterosexual nuclear family, at the precise time when this was becoming an impossibility for a growing number of people, in trends that continue to the present day.
It is not farfetched, then, that scholar Patricia Allmer reads Hellraiser as a critique of the tragic ruse of 1980s neoliberalism. In Hellraiser, she writes, “far from the Thatcherite promises of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty,’ ownership leads to death, destruction, and fragmentation, not least of the very individuality that ownership tries to establish and protect.” Further, while Thatcherism and Reaganism pushed moral panics against feminists and LGBTQ people as supposed threats to the family, scholar Matthew Sautman argues: “Barker shows Hellraiser’s viewers that the hegemonic family formation exalted during the 1980’s American backlash against feminism is seemingly incapable of ensuring familial prosperity, and that patriarchs have the capacity to transform any given domestic space into a private hell for anyone else who values their bodily autonomy.”
In the original Hellraiser, then, the destabilization of the family home stands as an avatar for broader transformations in social relations which had been long pulling people away from traditional, hetero-patriarchal living arrangements and making the existing ones unstable and prone to fall apart. As the journal Endnotes argues, deindustrialization and attendant transformations of social reproduction have long undercut the gendered division of labor in these countries, sending large numbers of men into traditionally feminized occupations like clerical and service work. Subjectivities based on this division, especially genders traditionally organized around men’s work and women’s work, could not but be destabilized as well. This transformation has been further accelerated by the demise of the single-paycheck families in the upper tiers of the working class, and the entry of large numbers of women into the middle tiers of the workforce, where they work as much, if not more, than the men in their households, and even supervise men at work. These factors combine to make the traditional nuclear family, and the identities it imposes, make increasingly less sense.
Simultaneously, as scholar John D’Emilio has argued, the tendencies of capitalism to break up traditional social forms and free laborers for the market, compounded with the rise of urbanization and self-selected communities, has enabled the consolidation and proliferation of queer identities and so-called alternative lifestyles, the likes of which Barker, himself a gay practitioner of BDSM, took part in with great enthusiasm. Meanwhile, developments in elective surgery and pharmacology dramatically opened the possibility for human bodies to be reconfigured, and further destabilized the notion of embodiment as a fixed destiny. Barker was not alone in finding this fertile ground for creative imagining; films like David Cronenberg’s 1983 Videodrome and Stuart Gordon’s 1986 From Beyond prefigured Hellraiser by juxtaposing so-called body horror with BDSM and queerness, demonstrating a keen intuition of profound and intractable social transformations underway—if not always portraying these themes in a favorable or respectful light.
You Opened It, We Came
Just as Marx’s Capital begins with the commodity, so too does Barker’s Hellraiser. Central to the story is the puzzle box, a gold-gilded fetish if there ever was one, obtainable through a market transaction and promising the fulfillment of its owners’ ultimate desires. As scholar Patricia Allmer notes: “Hellraiser begins with an exchange,” the purchase of the LeMarchand (French for merchant) Configuration, bringing with it the same contractual relations which define the free market so lauded in the time of Thatcher and Reagan. In Cenobites’ world, as in theirs, there are no innocent victims; everyone is considered free to choose, and must therefore be held accountable for whatever happens to them as a result. The central illusions that structure capitalist ideology are therefore also key aspects of the Cenobites’ moral economy. And the disproportionate power they wield is disguised by the illusion of free assent. In the original film, those who desire to open the box, and do so, are automatically treated as consenting parties. In the novella, even after Frank opens the box, he must provide nothing short of enthusiastic consent to enter the realm of the Leviathan; the Cenobites ask him multiple times if he is sure he wishes to enjoy their pleasures, even cautioning him: “There’s no going back.”
When the fruits of this transaction prove too much for Frank to bear, he does not fault the Cenobites. Having internalized their guiding ideology and its celebration of free choice, the novella’s Frank reasons that “his real error had been the naïve belief that his definition of pleasure significantly overlapped with that of the Cenobites.” Like a loyal capitalist subject insistent on blaming themselves for taking out a predatory loan or signing an exploitative labor contract, Frank would rather cling to his illusion of freedom than question the validity of the system in which it unfolds. In an unused exchange from the screenplay, Julia insists that Frank was cheated by the Cenobites. “Oh no,” he replies, defending his tormentors. “They kept to their bargain. They gave me experiences I’d never forget.” Far from disputing the validity of his captivity, Frank plots his escape via a “loophole” in their contract, as the novella phrases it.
The Cenobites’ scrupulously attention to consent is, however, offered in bad faith; they know that Frank is a desperate man, and has no other options left but to turn himself over to them. “We understand to its breadth and depth the nature of your frenzy,” one tells him in the novella. “It is utterly familiar to us.” Driven by compulsions beyond his control, Frank elects to enter the realm of the Leviathan no more freely than a laborer chooses to work for wages, the consumer chooses to purchase food, or the working-class college student goes into debt to get an education. The Cenobites are aware that their agreement with Frank is under duress and he will come to regret it, but his interests do not concern them. All that matters is that he signs on the dotted line. Frank, for his part, is possessed by a frenzy that points his desire toward the mystical character of the puzzle box. When the flesh and blood reality of the commodity’s secret is revealed at last, it is too late; he has already been chewed up and spit out.
A Waste Of Good Suffering
To make the original film, Barker made a Faustian pact of his own, forfeiting the cinematic rights to his most memorable characters. On the heels of Hellraiser, Barker wrote and produced a 1988 sequel Hellbound, which largely followed the mythology of the original, while expanding its vistas to include Kirsty’s sojourn through the Escheresque land of the Leviathan. Barker acted as a nominal producer, albeit with rapidly diminishing interest, on two subsequent installments, Hell on Earth and Bloodline, pushing the original story as far as it would go in space and time. The latter in particular shoehorned Hellraiser’s mythology into a three century timeline spanning LeMarchand’s creation of the box in post-revolutionary France to his descendant’s victorious final battle with Pinhead on a space shuttle in the year 2127. The ambitious Bloodline was, however, brutally recut by the studio, leading to director Kevin Yagher crediting himself as “Alan Smithee,” the Director’s Guild’s official designation of a disavowed final cut. This would set the tone for the rest of the series, which continued largely without the involvement of Barker, and represented cheap attempts to cash in on his loyal fans, while paying no respect to the complexities of the original mythology.
Reis Filho argues that the first four films, overseen by Barker, generally follow the philosophical underpinnings of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Cthulu Mythos,” characterized by “deadly encounters between gods and hapless human beings who stumble across them and discover, to their horror, a universe far darker and more hostile than they had ever imagined.” Importantly, this mythos has no place for the good/evil binary of Judeo-Christianity, which projects human value systems onto the order of the cosmos. Instead, it is the indifference of the universe to such human concerns that constitutes the core of the horror. The rest of the series, by contrast, quickly devolved into shopworn moralism, featuring Pinhead punishing evildoers, his Sadean sermons traded for such vapid Christian platitudes as: “Your flesh is killing your spirit.” In short Barker’s brilliant exploration of a realm beyond human values became yet another unimaginative rehashing of the Christian concept of Hell.
Critic Katie Rife once observed: “Watching all nine Hellraiser movies is an exercise in masochism.” There are now eleven, including Inferno (2000), Hellseeker (2002), Deader (2005), Hellworld (2005), Revelations (2011), and Judgment (2018). At least three of these films feature mere cameo appearances from Pinhead, clearly retrofitted into pre-existing, unrelated scripts. But the unquestioned nadir of a series full of lows comes in Revelations. The sole purpose of this dismal seventy-five minute slog was for the Weinstein Company to legally retain rights to the Hellraiser characters, which would otherwise default back to Barker for lack of use. The company generated a script virtually overnight, and allocated a $300,000 budget for two weeks of shooting. These conditions were so dismal that even Doug Bradley, whose Pinhead had weathered one forgettable sequel after another, refused to participate. Similarly, Clive Barker announced: “I have NOTHING to do with the fuckin’ thing. If they claim it’s from the mind of Clive Barker, it’s a lie. It’s not even from my butt-hole.”
The same story repeated in 2018, with Hellraiser:Judgment. This time, however, the $350,000 film was helmed by veteran franchise make-up designer Gary Tunnicliffe, who made an earnest attempt to get the Hellraiser films back on track, based on faithful additions to its mythology he had been proposing since the 1990s. This was still not enough to secure the return of Bradley, who criticized the film as a perfunctory exercise in retaining rights, and balked at a lengthy non-disclosure agreement limiting his ability to speak about the film on the lucrative horror conference circuit. Tunnicliffe’s efforts, however, evinced a decades-long struggle behind the scenes to spearhead a well-funded, high-quality reboot of the original Hellraiser, which remained frustrated, but not forgotten. There were, after all, more souls to be harvested, and more money too.
The Agony Of Friends
“Hell,” Barker once remarked, “is reimagined by every generation.” In contrast to most of the franchise preceding it, the 2022 Hellraiser reboot represents an earnest attempt to reinvigorate the original story, develop its mythology, and say something about the world that produced it. This can be largely attributed to Barker regaining his control of the brand, and now having a saw over how his characters are used. The new film also boasts a much larger budget, and a cast of young people who my students assure me are celebrity zoomers, plus Sense8 and The L Word actress Jamie Clayton as Pinhead, and the direction of David Bruckner of Night House and The Ritual. The reboot was produced by streaming giant Hulu for its subscribers, which keeps it off the big screen. This is unfortunate, as the Cenobites in particular look their best in decades—led by an unforgettable Clayton, who recaptures the Pinhead character’s breathy androgyny from the novella, breathing uncanny terror into its cosmic dispassion while delivering pitch-perfect aphorisms like: “Enough is a myth.”
Set in an unnamed American city, the film follows the alcoholic zoomer Riley McKendry, who struggles to find her footing in the labor market and navigate the impossible demands placed upon her by the world, largely represented by her older brother and sub-landlord Matt. Riley works an ill-defined service sector job dependent on tips, and is “really tired of being broke.” To help cope, Riley enters into a loveless relationship with fellow addict Trevor, who is casually employed as an art handler (perhaps the most meaningless and despair-inducing of my own many shitty jobs over the years). They live at the fringes of the labor market doing unrewarding jobs, kept in a suspended state of adolescence, and routinely escape this reality through intoxication.
The sex between Riley and Trevor is similarly devoid of any substance or passion; Riley even terminates the act when Trevor incautiously professes his love. To Riley, sex is not enjoyable in itself or part of any meaningful social connection, and doesn’t point to any pleasure greater than a temporary distraction. The same goes for companionship; Trevor describes their status as “being lonely together.” Riley lives with her brother Matt, his boyfriend Colin, and their roommate Nora, in an all-too-familiar shared apartment where young adults make each other tacos and listen intently to the sounds of arguments and sex pouring through the walls. Far from the queer hedonists anticipated by Barker’s Ceonbites, the gay couple Matt and Colin are solely depicted in chaste domestic scenes, such as reading poetry to each other in bed, presumably exhausted from work. Otherwise, Matt’s principal activity is clamping down on Riley’s fun, and demanding she earn more money. Riley, for her part, considers Matt’s interest in her to be compensation for his lack of social power or mobility. “You just love having something to fix,” she shouts at him, “so you can feel like a big success in this shitty apartment.
So Exquisitely Empty
This points to the most interesting of the reboot’s many divergences from the 1987 Hellraiser. There is no domestic horror, because there is no terrible house. The rented apartment the siblings share is merely used for some feeble character development, as the story shepherds the zoomers toward their fate in the kind of creepy mansion shopworn in traditional gothic lore. For these young people, property ownership is out of the question; it’s difficult enough to make rent. And the dissolution of Julia and Larry’s marriage, central to the original film, is already a fait accompli; consistent with trends in England and the US in the years since the original film, nobody in this Hellraiser is even married to begin with. And never does the story so much as hint at the siblings’ parents. Unlike countless of their teenage horror forebears, the drama of Riley and Matt does not revolve around superseding parental authority and facing the world on their own. They begin their journey already immersed in a harshness of a world that proves almost more than they can bear. And from here, there’s nowhere to go but down. It’s a universe far meaner than Barker himself could imagine in 1987, even before the Cenobites appear.
This is not to say there’s no wealth floating around in Hellraiser. Earthly authority is represented by the billionaire Roland Voight, a trader of occult art who is revealed late in the film to be Trevor’s secret employer. The consummate boss, Voight is a predator who manipulates and exploits innocent young people, sacrificing them to his own ambition, quite literally. In the rebooted Hellraiser, victims of the LeMarchand Configuration are effectively subcontracted out; those who wish to open the box must provide the Cenobites with five unwitting human sacrifices, who are stabbed against their will with a blade protruding from the box. Then, as Riley explains, using an interesting turn of the phrase, the Cenobites “come to collect.” Gone is the illusion of free choice for the vast majority of the Cenobites’ victims. And the reward awaiting the box holder at the end of this mass murder is not transportation to a realm beyond pleasure and pain, but an audience with the god Leviathan, in which they receive a “gift” said to fulfill their “ultimate desire.” In order for one character to be delivered to Leviathan, five must perish. There aren’t even enough full-time positions to go around in Hell.
As the story unfolds, Riley is marked as a sacrifice by Trevor, working at Voight’s behest. (Asked why Trevor would prey upon her this way, Voight remarks: “because this is the best deal of his miserable life.”) But Riley inadvertently passes off the box to Matt, who is summarily whisked off by the Cenobites in her place. As Riley struggles to make sense of the supernatural, in classical final girl fashion, she learns that Voight has previously solved the box, and in his audience with Leviathan, requested the gift of “sensation.” Like Frank, Voight expected untrammeled sexual gratification, but instead received unending, inescapable pain. Riley thereby learns that the string of sacrifices which ensnares the young roommates amounts to Voight’s attempt to summon the Leviathan once more and attempt to free himself from their pact. “I sought pleasure,” the billionaire explains to Riley, in a telling exchange, “but all they have to give is pain. It’s a trick. All of it.” Take it from the billionaire: the game is rigged.
The rebooted Hellraiser lacks the romance and eroticism of the original, but perhaps that’s the point. Julia and Frank, as Sarah Trencansky argues, are “two adults so complacent in their bourgeois lives that they seek out the ‘pleasure’ promised them by the box as one more capital [sic] attainment.” Their zoomer equivalents, by contrast, have long given up on realizing lofty desires, aiming instead for the procurement of basic necessities, or else not to simply become somebody else’s lunch. What’s more, they have likely seen the promise of desire unchained turned into so much more fodder for marketing commodities or the creation of interest groups for neoliberal politicians to pander to. Voight, the closest character the film has to Uncle Frank, seems out of place in a story populated by young people who believe in nothing and expect less. The flip side, though, is they are not so easily bought.
“There is no retreat once a threshold has been crossed,” Pinhead ominously drones, in one of their many classic lines, which constitute the best moments of this film. “All you can do is search for a greater threshold.” The zoomers, however, could beg to differ. In an excellent scene, Pinhead asks Nora: “What is it you pray for?” to which she replies: “Salvation.” A disappointed Pinhead responds: “There’s no music in that.” Later, when Pinhead attempts to ensnare Riley in the same old Faustian bargain which has strewn the Hellraiser franchise with bodies, she isn’t biting. “I’ve seen your rewards,” Riley responds. “I don’t want anything from you.” The 2022 Hellraiser reboot is a horror film suitable for the so-called Great Resignation and the growing number of zoomers opting to stay out of college if it means a mountain of debt. It speaks to a generation who has precious few illusions of what capitalism can offer them, and must decide whether they will kill themselves pursuing its gilded promise anyway. The viewer is only left wondering where this horror story will go next—on the screen, and more importantly, in the real world which it reflects so deviously.