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You Can't Go to Hell Again

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HELLRAISER. Despite the repeated implication — imprecation? — that I am a joyless churl and incapable of sitting in moments of celebration, I am working to embrace the spirit of the spooky season. I probably won't put on a costume (beyond that of a smiling normie), but I'm making my way through the Criterion Channel's brilliantly curated selection of '80s horror and, more germane to this column, I watched Hellraiser. Actually, I watched two: the 1987 original and the new reboot on Hulu.

While I spent much of my childhood watching, reveling in and simultaneously grappling with the induced trauma of a number of probably age-inappropriate hard-R action movies, I missed most of the third-wave horror with which we were inundated at the time. Kids at school were all aflutter about A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Friday the 13th (1980) — less so the Halloween franchise; in hindsight they probably weren't real cineastes — but the gatekeepers (read: parents) of my early movie fandom were focused elsewhere. Perhaps partially because they had been scarred by Psycho (1960), Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Deliverance (1972), when the horror genre had not yet been devoured and regurgitated by marketing. That would happen in the '80s, a sort of golden age but also dying of the light for horror, when the moviemaking arms raced shifted into high-gear grotesquery, putting every resource to use bringing the cruelest, most horrific visions to life.

Hellraiser (1987) was the ubiquitous, whispered monarch of this movement — images of Pinhead were abundant but the truth of its content was willfully obscured. Even in playground references, where the humor of Freddy and Jason could be imitated, if not fully understood, Clive Barker's treatise on interdimensional suffering was the stuff of rumor — grown folks' business. And so, I waited 35 years and then I watched it, three days ago.

As with many effects-driven examples, the decades have not been kind to Hellraiser. We know it's fake, it looks fake and, as a result, it is not particularly scary. However (!), there is an integrity and an intentionality to its construction, as well as an admitted nostalgia, that allowed me to re-enter my child's mind and understand that, had I watched this movie all those years ago (had I been able to endure it), I would have emerged changed, maybe irreparably.

Barker adapted his own novel, The Hellbound Heart (which I may be old enough to read now) into the screenplay for Hellraiser and it became his directorial debut. Widower Larry (Andrew Robinson), recently remarried to Julia (Clare Higgins), decides to move back to the family home (of indeterminate locale). Unbeknownst to the couple — and to Larry's daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) — the house had lately become the squat of his estranged weirdo brother Frank (Sean Chapman), who has left behind a mess, some photographs and not much else. Except, of course, Julia's memories of the torrid affair she had with Frank and has since kept concealed from Larry. So, when a ... diminished Frank, conjured by blood spilled in a furniture moving accident, appears in the attic and conscripts Julia to aid him in his return to the physical realm, she is On Board.

As I've mentioned, the improvement in special effects and our continuing habituation to imagined horror have rendered Hellraiser less insanely indelible than it must have been on original first watch. But it is so ardent, so enlivened by a belief in its own storytelling and image-making, so committed to its evocation of the continuum of pain and pleasure, that it endures and transcends the frequently disgusting trappings of its genre. Barker is mythmaking, as all horror creators do, but he is also exploring themes and psychic undercurrents with far greater sophistication and boldness than many of his contemporaries, while also creating new standards for visualized depravity.

The movie spawned a number of sequels I may or may not someday explore. It has also given rise to a new entry, though, which I suppose we have to call a reboot. Written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski and David S. Goyer — too many? — with Barker credited for his novel, but not his movie, and directed by David Bruckner (The Night House, 2020), this version would ostensibly seek to update the material; adding cellphones doesn't do much for it.

Centered on Riley (Odess A'zion, maybe working above her assigned station here), a troubled twenty-something whose friend with benefits Trevor (Drew Starkey) convinces her to help him steal a relic of unknown origin, this version turns into a sort of haunted house mystery. In an attempt, I suppose, to enlarge the conceit of the original, Bruckner et al. trap Riley, Trevor and a couple others in the spooky mansion of missing, presumed dead playboy Voight (Goran Visnjic), where they are set upon, of course, by the Cenobites.

Given the resources now available, this could be a truly horrifying experience, an expansion of Barker's created universe, but it isn't. Lacking the strength of conviction that drives the original, this feels tame, antiseptic, even bloodless, especially by comparison. R. 120M. HULU.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema (707) 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre (707) 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre (707) 822-3456.

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