Hellraiser: Judgment (2018)
"Evil seeks evil"
Detectives Sean and David Carter are on the case to find a gruesome serial killer called The Preceptor whose murders are inspired by The Ten Commandments. Their work draws them closer to a mysterious house and its hellish inhabitants – the Cenobites.
I don’t think any big horror franchise has been treated as poorly as Hellraiser has. The original, not without its faults, is still one of the most disturbing, thought-provoking horrors ever made, a nightmarish Gothic trip into sadomasochistic territory that seems to get better with age. A decent sequel, filled with big concepts but lacking the ability to translate them across to the screen, followed and then the rot began to set in. First with more routine A Nightmare on Elm Street territory in Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth and then with Hellraiser: Bloodline, a film so messy that its director went under the Alan Smithee pseudonym out of disgust. Whilst the other big horror franchises of the 80s, particularly A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th continued to plough on with cinematic releases and then eventually remakes, Hellraiser was consigned to straight-to-video hell.
The last batch of sequels all started off life as standalone horror scripts but had the Hellraiser mantle tagged onto them in a desperate attempt by Dimension Films to retain the rights to the property. What you got were generic low budget horror films which had a brief cameo by Pinhead, maybe an appearance by another Cenobite, some reference to the Lament Configuration Box and then boom, Hellraiser was revived. This got more obvious as the series progressively worsened, culminating in one of the biggest horror franchise abominations of all time – the unwatchable Hellraiser: Revelations. With less than two weeks to shoot and a budget of around $350,000, it was a pathetic legal obligation above all else – but it did what it set out to do which was allow Dimension Films to keep the Hellraiser rights.
With talk of a remake on the go for years, the clock was ticking again for some form of Hellraiser output and so Hellraiser: Judgment has now materialised to make sure the rights stay in-house. But it seems as though someone has learnt their lesson because as much as I found swathes of Hellraiser: Judgment to be boring with the whole police procedural thing going on, I also found it difficult to hate. Director Gary J. Tunnicliffe had been with the series since Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth so he at least understands the inner workings of the franchise – though it’s never been a coherent timeline, with each sequel basically doing its own thing. He seems to have his heart in the right place, leaning the film back into something which has the tone and spirit of a Hellraiser, even if it doesn’t feature the majority of the series’ iconography.
As I’ve said, the bulk of Hellraiser: Judgment is boring, sort of like a low budget Se7en knock-off as the cops hunt down the vicious serial killer who likes to be all Old Testament with his murdering ways. Watch any number of late 90s serial killer films and you’ll know the type of film you’re in for – dark, edgy, filthy with plenty of grotesque imagery on display. It’s the kind of grubby film that will make you want to scrub yourself clean afterwards. But it’s just dull doesn’t set the pulse racing. Watching the detectives slowly work their way through the case as they deal with other demons in their lives isn’t exactly riveting viewing and the three human leads aren’t good enough to draw you in. That’s largely down to the script which basically recycles a number of crime thriller cliches and hopes you haven’t seen Se7en.
Hellraiser: Judgment gets more interesting, as is always the case with these sequels, when the focus is on the supernatural and of series lore. There is a surreal, if overlong, prologue where the audience is introduced to new characters and new ways of working for the Cenobites. The world has moved on from puzzle boxes and Pinhead and co. lament that they find it increasingly difficult to attract new victims due to technology providing the pleasure they once did. They now reside in a house which lures in the worst of society where they are put on trial for their crimes and given ‘rewards’ on whether they are guilty or not, hence where the ‘Judgment’ part of the title comes into play. It’s a novel twist on the material, something different from the usual we’ve come to expect from the franchise, and this is brought to life with some vivid imagery and wild ideas, almost akin to a Saw film, where you want a good scrub down after watching some of the filthy, vile traps.
The film moves quickly in the final third when The Preceptor is unmasked, the Lament Configuration Box is finally opened, and Pinhead appears to cast judgement on the victims, Hellraiser: Judgment really does try. A whole host of series mythology-busting ideas are thrown out there for the audience, with the theological implications of Pinhead and Christianity really brought to the fore like never before. Whether you find the twists offensive or a masterstroke will depend on how religious you are, how much of a Hellraiser boffin you are or whether you just take everything fictional with a pinch of salt. In many ways, Tunnicliffe tries too many new things out and tosses up too much of the series mythology in one sitting, almost tantamount to Rhian Johnson’s butchering of the Star Wars franchise in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Well, ok maybe not that bad.
Hellraiser: Judgment corrects one of the biggest failings of the previous film with the casting of Pinhead. Jettisoning the horrendous Stephan Smith Collins and replacing him with Paul L. Taylor, someone a bit more competent in the role but still a long way from recapturing Doug Bradley’s Shakespearean menace, was a step in the right direction. But again, Pinhead is reduced to a bit-part player with little to do or say apart from a few brief scenes and the cynic in me says he was shoe-horned in again. The bulk of the Cenobite screen time is devoted to interesting newcomer The Auditor, played by the director himself, Gary J. Tunnicliffe, a character who acts as a go-between for Pinhead and the victims (something Pinhead never needed before). I guess the film is grooming him to be the eventual replacement, especially given the final scene.
Hellraiser: Judgment is an interesting mess. Is it a good film? No. Is it one of the better sequels? Well, I’d argue it was the best of the straight-to-video sequels. And unlike the previous films where you just wanted them to mercifully kill the series off, a part of me actually now wants to see what direction the series is taken in, if they do decide to continue this story arc. No doubt I’ll live to regret that last sentence.
Director(s): Gary J. Tunnicliffe
Writer(s): Clive Barker (based on characters created by), Gary J. Tunnicliffe
Actor(s): Damon Carney, Randy Wayne, Alexandra Harris, Heather Langenkamp, Paul T. Taylor
Duration: 81 mins