Hellraiser: Judgment Review

Gary Tunnicliffe’s sequel is a flawed but earnest and important addition to the franchise.

Pinhead 2

As an enthusiast of horror, there is no franchise that I love more than Hellraiser. The original film, based on Clive Barker’s sharply written novella The Hellbound Heart, was an interesting and bold fusion of hedonism and gore tinged with the author’s signature flare for evocatively surrealistic imagery. Barker wrote and directed the adaptation of his novella and in the process, gave birth to Pinhead, one of the most iconic horror screen villains of the twentieth century

Flanked by the Cenobites, an entourage of equally scarred and devout acolytes, Pinhead was an atypical horror villain in comparison to his pop culture counterparts of the era. Neither a silent killer who slaughtered indiscriminately like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers nor a cackling trickster espousing quips and puns like Freddy Kruger, Pinhead was a stoic, deliberate presence. Authoritative and regal, he commanded immediate respect and his visage suggested nary a shred of hypocrisy.

His bald head adorned with nails driven directly into his skull, one understood on appearance alone that whatever he was going to do to you he had likely already done to himself. As much a theologian as a monster, Pinhead and his minions were devoted to the purest explorations of experience and sensation and clearly believed in the inviolability of their endeavors.

Doug-Bradley-Pinhead

Barker laid a cerebral and potentially complex foundation when creating the Cenobites, crafting a more nuanced doctrine of hell and its demons. And although some of this was explored in the sequel Hellbound: Hellraiser II, the character and franchise unfortunately devolved into a simplistic commodity. Rather than being expounded upon in any meaningful way, the series was merely exploited for profit. Both Hellraiser III and Bloodline were entertaining films but they were also the product of studio interference and an attempt to commoditize and mainstream something that was, inherently, niche. After Bloodline, the franchise was regulated to direct-to-video offerings, the quality ranging from mediocre to downright abysmal. The only saving grace of these b-tier flicks was the magnetic and compelling work of Doug Bradley, whose ability to deliver poignancy and elevate the pabulum surrounding him made the drudgery of these films palatable.

The series’ low-point was 2011’s Hellraiser: Revelations, an ashcan film that was only made because Dimension studios was contractually obligated to generate a movie or lose the film rights to the franchise. Knowing the film would be unconscionably poor, Doug Bradley opted out of playing Pinhead and the film was shot quickly and cheaply. The final product was to be screened only once for staff and crew. Unfortunately, the executives at Dimension allowed their more mercenary instincts to override common sense and made the unwise decision to release the film on streaming services and home video.

Needless to say, the few critics who bothered to review Revelations tore the film asunder in a manner that would have made the Hell Priest blush.

In the years since, the persistent rumors of a possible remake or reboot of the franchise have come and gone. Clive Barker, who penned his own farewell to the character of Pinhead in his 2015 novel The Scarlet Gospels, reportedly wrote a script for the remake that was – to the dismay of the fanbase –  rejected by Dimension.

The reason I’m prefacing this review with a brief historical survey of the franchise is to demonstrate that those of us who are passionate about Hellraiser have suffered innumerable indignities regarding our beloved series. This is true even as other horror mainstays have enjoyed revivals to varying degrees of success. And even if you believe that the Nightmare on Elm Street remake was a soulless cash-grab or that Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboot was an affront to Carpenter’s classic, these films are practically high art next to the bulk of Hellraiser’s direct-to-video bargain bin tripe.

With all of this in mind, I approached Gary Tunnicliffe’s Hellraiser: Judgment with a certain degree of trepidation. Reports about his film seemed promising despite the lack of money fueling it.

Tunnicliffe’s bona fides with regards to the Hellraiser property are interesting. He wrote the original script for Revelations yet insisted it was butchered by Dimension. He also produced an unofficial Hellraiser short entitled No More Souls which posited a dour and listless Pinhead occupying a post-apocalyptic world where all of humanity has perished from nuclear war. With no more humans left to slake the sadistic thirst of his minions, Pinhead has no other choice but to offer himself as a final sacrament. Competent and creative, the short was one of the best fan films I’ve ever come across.

no more

Given the quality of No More Souls, I had hopes that Tunnicliffe might bring something unique to a franchise that has essentially been strip-mined and largely disregarded.

As it turns out, I was correct.

Now to be perfectly clear, Hellraiser: Judgment is an incredibly flawed film. And to be fair, many of these failings are due directly to the threadbare budget of the movie. The cost-cuts bleed through in various places and expose seams which are jarring and, at times, unintentionally funny. But beyond this admittedly rough exterior, Tunnicliffe has delivered a Hellraiser experience that is not only very much faithful to the original spirit of Barker’s work but manages to add some of its own interesting mythology to the equation.

The film opens with Pinhead (Paul T. Taylor) and The Auditor, (played by Tunnicliffe himself) discussing their difficulty in luring new victims. Technology has outmoded the likes of the Lament Configuration and they seek new ways to bait their human prey. From here we are made privy to an induction of sorts as a sadistic murderer finds himself strapped to a chair while the Auditor – a bald, sunglass-bespectacled monstrosity whose face and head are covered with deep, crimson lacerations – efficiently catalogues his transgressions on an ancient typewriter. We are then given access to the very ordered yet bizarre process by which these crimes are tallied, processed, aggregated and ultimately ruled upon by an esoteric cast of grotesqueries. This procedure, while not for the squeamish, is a fascinating combination of bureaucracy and pagan ritualism culminating in a grisly scene that pays tacit homage to the original film.

Pinhead and Autitor

After this admittedly compelling opening, things slow considerably. The low production values and clunky script, centered around a biblically-inspired killer who derives homicidal inspiration from the Ten Commandments, threatens to derail the film entirely. This element is tired and derivative and Tunnicliffe lacks the budgetary resources to bring any real credence or viability to the storyline. Instead of being filled with forensics investigators and busy police officers, a crime scene contains only the principle actors. A police precinct office interior looks like a rented trailer and is notably incongruous with an exterior establishing shot. Compounding these logistical problems are some very wonky dialogue choices and hackneyed thriller tropes.

As much as I respect the director’s ambition, I can’t help but think that winnowing down the scope of this film would have been a wise decision given the meager funds available. In some ways, Hellraiser: Judgment feels like two distinctive films, one of which is boring, languid and difficult to watch.

The other film, taking up less screen time, is gruesomely enjoyable. This better part of Judgment is a deft exploration of an ethereal realm and its intrigues the likes of which hasn’t been glimpsed in the franchise since Hellraiser II. While Tunnicliffe’s rendition of the hellish afterlife is markedly different in many ways, his creative decisions still feel very much in proportion with both Barker’s cinematic and written work. Unlike the clunky, cliché-ridden detective story wraparound, the sequences in hell (or it’s earthy proxy as it appears in the movie) are fresh, interesting and populated with startling imagery and compelling characters.

Paul T. Taylor as Pinhead proves himself to be a solid replacement for Bradley. While the latter will always be known for the role and rightly credited for nurturing the character’s growth into something truly special, Taylor cuts his own swath as the Hell Priest and possesses both the acting chops and the onscreen presence to make the role his own.

Hellraiser-Judgment-Pinhead

Perhaps the biggest surprise however is Tunnicliffe’s work as the Auditor. The director plays him as a bookish, nervous being, one whose officious demeanor sits atop a darker, nastier layer of potential violence. Looking like a cross between a Cenobite and one of their victims, the Auditor speaks with a slight and hesitant European accent. It makes him both menacing and vaguely endearing, especially when contrasted with the stoicism of his demonic colleague. What could easily have been a throwaway addition is instead a character I would very much enjoy seeing integrated into future installations of the franchise.

Tunnicliffe, once he draws back the uninspired veil of the serial killer plotline and gives us access to the supernatural underpinnings of the film, delivers these macabre images and scenarios with gusto and a steady hand. For all of the budgetary restrictions foisted onto this production, little of those shortcomings are evident in the exceptional makeup and costume design. The dialogue likewise is mostly on point. While a few stilted lines of fanservice stick out from time to time, the overall flow of these scenes carry both pathos and a familiarity rooted in the aesthetics and tone of first two films.

Tunnicliffe even manages to extrapolate on Barker’s work, including elements and ideas not seen in previous installments but alluded to in The Hellbound Heart and The Scarlet Gospels. Unlike previous sequels where the mythology was clumsily attached to a mediocre plotline, Hellraiser: Judgment feels like a genuine entry in the series. It offers something new even to the most devout and longtime fans. There is an indelible pulse at the heart of Tunnicliffe’s work here; a passion that is evident even when obscured by the shoestring budget or the questionable structural and narrative choices.

Some may be quick to dismiss this film as another cheap cash-in or ashcan movie. But the more I reflect on Hellraiser: Judgment, the more I’m convinced that the movie, despite its problems, possesses some of the greatest highs of the franchise since Hellraiser II. When looking at the film with an eye for what could be improved, it is evident that the majority of the problems are largely financial. All things considered, I’m impressed that Tunnicliffe was able to squeeze out as much blood from this particular turnip as he did.

If the execs over at Dimension have even the slightest respect for the franchise, they’d hand Tunnicliffe a halfway-modest production budget and allow him to make a film without such ridiculously anemic financial restraints. Regardless, Hellraiser: Judgement, despite its flaws, is the best thing to happen to this franchise in a very long time. With any luck, somebody with decision-making clout is watching carefully.

Hellraiser: Judgment is out today on Blu-ray, DVD, and Video on Demand.

Box Art

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