Review: HELLRAISER: JUDGMENT Makes Hell A Place On Earth

The acting's bad, the story's half-baked, and Pinhead's barely in it. And yet...

The new Hellraiser movie opens with everyone's favorite Cenobite, Pinhead, bemoaning the rise of the information age. Technology, it seems, has rendered the Lament Configuration "obsolete": now, rather than get hoodwinked by an ornate puzzle box like our ancestors did, people everywhere are using the internet to get all horned up and commit unpleasant acts against one another. How could Hell possibly compete with the internet? I mean, just look at Twitter. Jesus wept, indeed.

Anyway, having established its thesis, Hellraiser: Judgment then transitions into what will end up being its most memorable segment: a lengthy, pre-title sequence in which a child murderer is lured to a dilapidated house on the outskirts of a city, where he is then knocked unconscious, intravenously hooked up to a typewriter, and compelled to confess his greatest sins. Once those are all typed up, an obese man wearing only a suit jacket appears and eats the confession, which is then vomited into a pipe that runs into another room, at which point a trio of naked women with skinned faces evaluate the puke, find the gentleman guilty, and send him off to be skinned alive by a latex-clad surgeon before being carried off to Hell by a hulking brute wearing a wooden baby mask.

Needless to say, I was onboard the Hellraiser: Judgment train before the title even appeared onscreen. Yeah, the opening wasn't so much Hellraiser as it was a Nine Inch Nails music-video supercut, but that's fine - I'm not precious about Hellraiser mythology, and I honestly admired how over-the-top unpleasant the whole thing was. There's an immediate sense that director Gary J. Tunnicliffe is swinging for the fences, determined to get this franchise back on track after an endless stream of weak-ass, DTV sequels. Might not be the sort of thing I'd throw on when friends come over, sure, but you gotta respect the DGAF attitude on display.

But then reality sets in, and we realize that Hellraiser: Judgment will mostly be about a trio of cops trying to track down a serial killer by the name of the Preceptor. This perp's bad news, killing people in ludicrously overcomplicated ways (one lady has her dog sewn inside her) and always managing to stay one step ahead of our intrepid heroes. Eventually one of them winds up visiting the same house we saw earlier in the film, but the segment's truncated and lacks the element of surprise that made Hellraiser: Judgment's opening sequence so memorable. Past that, there's some more stuff with the cops, a brief detour involving an angel, and then the movie ends. 

I hate to Monday Morning Hellraiserback Tunnicliffe here, but it seems clear to me that all the "Hell" stuff in Hellraiser: Judgment is infinitely more interesting than anything happening out in the real world, and that an entire film devoted to the inner workings of Pinhead's Cenobite team would've been far more compelling than yet another Seven knock-off. There's a real sense of bureaucracy to the Cenobites' efforts in this movie, and I greatly enjoyed watching them go through the motions. At no point did I care about the serial killer, or the cops, or the fact that two of them are brothers, or that maybe one of their wives hasn't been completely faithful. How could I, when I know there's a giant dude wearing a baby mask out there, disposing of skinned child molesters with the same lack of passion one usually exhibits while working a dead-end retail job?

Here's the other thing: Tunnicliffe absolutely nails the sweaty, fever-dream feeling of a good Clive Barker yarn in that opening twenty minutes. If Stephen King built an empire on the juxtaposition of good ol' regular folks and the supernatural, the Barker brand has always skewed weirder, skeevier, sexier, meaner, more hallucinogenic. Hellraiser: Judgment frequently captures that feeling, and I was legitimately impressed by it. That's a hard tone to convey onscreen (much less with what was obviously a limited budget), but somehow Tunnicliffe pulls it off. I don't believe that to be accidental, so I have to assume the man knows his shit.

Also worth noting: the practical effects and the work done by Paul Taylor, as Pinhead, are both solid. The former aren't anything to write home to the Chatterer about, perhaps, but they are impressive given the means of the production, and Taylor's performance as Pinhead is certainly a step up from that time Bobby Moynihan's stunt double came in to sub for Doug Bradley. Your mileage will almost certainly vary on both of these points, but for me they were checks in the "Plus" column. 

Hellraiser: Judgment does not entirely work as a movie. It's a mixed bag, with the stuff I enjoyed ultimately outweighed by the stuff I did not. But it comes so close to breaking even, I can't help but be curious to see what Tunnicliffe might do with a decent budget, or less meddling from the rights holders. We haven't come close to a good Hellraiser movie in well over a decade, but this one ... this one comes fairly close to being alright. Give it a rental and see if you don't agree.

Hellraiser: Judgment hits Blu-ray, DVD and VOD tomorrow, February 13th.