Save your Breath for Screaming
Directed by David Bruckner
Starring Odessa A’zion, Jamie Clayton, Goran Višnjić
Released October 7th, 2022
Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart (1986) is one of my favorite novellas. A journey through the most extreme desires of the darkest souls, it retains its shocking impact to this day. In 1987, Barker turned his book into a screenplay and directed a film adaptation called Hellraiser, which was a box office success. Audiences were especially fond of actor Doug Bradley, who played Barker’s Hell Priest (nicknamed “Pinhead” by fans). Barker also worked on the story for the film’s sequel Hellbound, with director Tony Randel stepping in to helm the proceedings, and Bradley returning as the lead Cenobite. Both films are very good, with haunting images and go-for-broke storytelling to which most current horror films couldn’t hope to hold a candle.
Being that the 1980s was the heyday of the slasher movie, producers saw the opportunity to make Pinhead into a horror icon along the lines of Jason Voorhees, Michael Meyers, and Freddy Krueger. And so, with the third film, Anthony Hickox’s Hell on Earth, we got a much more “normal” horror film, and indeed it ended up making more money at the box office than its weirder (and much better) predecessors. The last entry of the series to see the silver screen was the fourth installment, Bloodline. As the story spans centuries, it’s possibly the most ambitious of the films, but unfortunately the finished product is incoherent and the film was disowned by the filmmakers who claimed studio interference.
From there the series went straight-to-video, which in the age of streaming might not sound that bad, but back then it was the home of b-movies and low budgets. The first of these, Inferno (2000), is only notable because it’s the directorial debut of Scott Derrickson, who would go on to make much better movies including Sinister and Doctor Strange. Rick Bota directed the next three films in the series, all of which started out as scripts that had nothing to do with Hellraiser. The first of these, Hellseeker (2002), has more or less the same conclusion as Inferno. The next, Deader (2005), features a plot almost as bad as the film’s title, and finally we have Hellworld (also 2005!), which sought to bring the internet into play. Hellworld is awful, but it’s neat seeing Lance Hendrickson, Khary Payton, and an unknown Henry Cavill act as pawns for Doug Bradley’s Pinhead. Hellworld would be the final time Bradley would play the Hell Priest, but this didn’t stop producers from cranking out more Hellraiser films. The absolute worst film in this franchise is the ninth, Revelations (2011). The first film without Doug Bradley, Revelations features a woefully miscast Stephan Smith Collins as Pinhead, and was shot in two weeks only so the rights holders wouldn’t lose control of the intellectual property. The tenth film in the franchise, 2018’s Judgement, is probably the best of the straight-to-video Hellraiser films, as you can tell it’s a labor of love from writer/director Gary Tunnicliffe, who had done effects work earlier in the series. Paul T. Taylor is wonderful as Pinhead and the ending is very good. Judgement failed to find much of an audience however, and the rights to the franchise eventually went back to creator Clive Barker.
Boasting the best script, score, cast, special effects, and biggest budget in years, the direct-to-streaming Hellraiser (2002) is easily the best film in the franchise since the first two installments. Though it shares its name with the 1987 original, this is not a remake of that film or even an adaptation of The Hellbound Heart. I imagine this new story was saddled with that derivative title because of the current trend of reboots sporting the same title as the film that kickstarted their respective series, e.g., Halloween (2018), and Scream (2022).
Odessa A’zion stars as Riley, a young woman fresh out of rehab who is still struggling with her addictions to pills and alcohol. She lives with her overprotective brother, who disapproves of her continuing her rehab romance with Trevor (Drew Starkey). When Riley and Trevor come into possession of a certain puzzle box, bad things happen. But in an honest depiction of post-rehab life, few believe anything coming out of Riley’s mouth. At first, even she doesn’t believe the strange things she’s seeing. I like Riley and her friends. They’re more fleshed out than most cannon-fodder types in horror movies.
The voice modulation used for the demonic Cenobites takes some getting used to, but the designs are out of this world. Jamie Clayton, a trans woman, portrays Pinhead (here credited as Hell Priest), and turns in the best performance since Doug Bradley. I’d love to see her return to the role. There are references to Hellraiser lore that will delight longtime fans, but it’s not necessary to have seen any of the previous ten (!) films to have a bloody good time with this entry. Director and co-writer David Bruckner (The Ritual) doesn’t reinvent the torture rack, but he does give it a fresh, gruesome polish. There are many nightmarish sequences that worm their way into your head with effectively creepy vibes, and some outright shocking displays of flesh being ripped apart by chains. So many chains.