Ah, the eternal pain and pleasure of being a Hellraiser fan. The long-running franchise launched in the fertile, effed-up mind of Clive Barker has endured for three decades without any official reboots or remakes. That sounds like a good thing, but it’s largely thanks to Dimension’s determination to hold on to the rights (and the ever-profitable Pinhead merchandising), meaning a new entry has popped up every few years like clockwork. The result is that Hellraiser has become one of the most fruitful horror franchises, but the fruits haven’t always been sweet. The first four theatrical release all have their diehards, but once the franchise went DTV, Hellraiser became less of a film series and more of a merchandise life-support machine and the quality plummeted rapidly, bottoming out (hopefully) with the pitiful 2011 installment Hellraiser: Revelations, the first sequel for which Hellraiser mainstay Doug Bradley declined to return.
Which brings us to Hellraiser: Judgment, the tenth installment in the franchise, which just landed on home video and marks a refreshing change of pace. Directed by makeup effects veteran Gary J. Tunnicliffe, Judgment makes bold strides to expand the Hellraiser universe, and while not always successful, it’s always ambitious. Tunnicliffe isn’t just trying to replicate the original films; the franchise has already suffered enough generation loss from that technique. He wants to carve out new mythology and build the world of terrors surrounding Pinhead. Some diehard fans won’t agree with Tunnicliffe’s vision, but damn it’s nice to see a Hellraiser film from someone who has one. Unfortunately, the execution too sloppy, the budget is too low, and the human drama is too pedestrian for that vision to fully translate.
That said, Tunnicliffe gets a lot right. The effects are pretty damn impressive, especially for what is obviously a seriously limited budget; a benefit of Tunnicliffe’s prolific career as a makeup artist, no doubt. There’s nothing new in Judgment that will prove as iconic as the monstrous, mangled designs Barker brewed up with his original Hellraiser team, but Tunnicliffe carries Barker’s grotesque torch proudly. He also co-stars under pounds of prosthetics as the Auditor, a Cenobite-adjacent member of a new faction in hell who is introduced alongside the Butcher, the Surgeon, and the Jury. These new designs skew more towards the repulsion than the glamor, but it’s not too hard to imagine you might turn a corner in Pinhead’s hell to find these bureaucratic beasts auditing souls.
Tunnicliffe also channels what is no doubt the trickiest element of a Hellraiser film – that skeevy, surreal, super-extra flourish that defines Barker’s unique expression of fantasy and horror. It’s incredibly difficult to capture the sensation of walking into Barker’s worlds; the way they stick to you, with equal power to propel and allure. Tunnicliffe doesn’t totally nail the balance — Judgment is pretty sexless for a Hellraiser film — but he does manage to dip a toe in the tricky hallucinogenic nightmarishness that gives Barker’s work it’s singular sting.
The film’s best sequence is dripping with that squalid surrealism. A brief intro that tells us Pinhead has grown bored and emo in the internet age, unable to compete with the rampant sins of the world wide web. With that established, we cut to the sequence that will have you squirming and possibly gagging in your seat before the title credits even roll. A child murderer is lured to a creepy, desolate house with the help of an online posting. There, the Auditor (Tunnicliffe) straps the man to a chair, hooks him up to an intravenous typewriter contraption, and demands a full roster of the man’s sins. Once those are all tallied and typed up, a sweaty, slovenly man known as the Assessor (John Gulager) consumes the confession and pukes it up into a drain pipe that leads down to a trio of naked, faceless ladies. They prod around in the bile, announce the man as guilty, and he’s whisked off for a thoroughly repulsive “cleansing” by saliva before a to a torturous visit to the Butcher (Joel Decker) and the Surgeon (Jillyan Blundell). It’s a lot to process; a thorough probing of the senses, and it announces Judgment as a film to sit up and pay attention to.
Unfortunately, Judgment rarely lives up to the standard it sets for itself. If half of the film is pulsing with the bizarre, disturbed energy of a proper Clive Barker adaptation, the other half is flaccid and soporific. Every time Judgment turns its attention away from the outlandish perversions of hell, the film grinds to a halt with a tiresome detective yarn pulled from the well-worn DNA of Seven and Saw. Stop me if you’ve heard this one — An extreme, moralistic killer is ravaging the sinful citizens of the city, leaving behind gory tableaus of horrific violence. You know what, I’ll stop myself. We’ve all heard this one. Unfortunately, Tunnicliffe matches his Hellraiser innovations with a human story that’s painfully trite and familiar.
In Judgment, the killer refers to himself as The Preceptor, targetting those who violate the ten commandments (so yeah, it’s not exactly subtle about the Seven parallels). A trio of detectives is hot on the killer’s case — brother duo Sean (Damon Carney) and David Carter (Randy Wayne) and their recently assigned watchdog Christine Edgerton (Alexandra Harris), who are all just suffocatingly boring. Excepting the original, the Hellraiser movies always have a pretty bland story of humans getting tangled in Pinhead’s web, and Judgment is no exception in that regard.
Then there’s the matter of Pinhead. For one, he’s not in the movie very muct — A fact that will rub some fans the wrong way, but works pretty well with the expanded mythology Tunnicliffe is building. However, if you’re looking for the Pinhead kicking ass and taking names show, you’ve come to the wrong place. There’s also the fact that Doug Bradley declined to return to the role once again, a real sticking point for a lot of Hellraiser diehards. However, Paul T. Taylor is perfectly serviceable, capturing the elegance and commanding presence of the iconic horror character, even if he never quite pins down (ahem) Bradley’s signature wicked charm. He makes a fine Pinhead though, and an unequivocal step up from what we got in Revelations.
Hellraiser: Judgment will be a divisive entry in the canon. Tunnicliffe takes big swings and prods at the boundaries of what makes a Hellraiser film. Aesthetically, it’s more in line with a dingy early-aughts music video than your traditional Hellraiser movie, and it’s less interested in Cenobites than building the world around them. If that’s not for you, that’s totally fair. But there’s a fearless weirdness to it, and that is a lot more interesting than the paint-by-numbers copy-of-a-copy we’ve seen from Dimension’s bare minimum approach to sequel after sequel. The Hellraiser movies have been soulless for so long — and what’s the point of a Cenobite without a soul to tear apart? At least Judgement gives them a little something to chew on. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a better than average Hellraiser sequel, and it’s got some nasty tricks up its sleeve.