It’s been seven years since Hellraiser fans were subjected to the ninth film in the franchise—and the first without Doug Bradley as Pinhead—Hellraiser: Revelations (2011). Playing like a budgetless fan film attempt at what a studio remake would look like, Revelations was almost universally considered a disaster and set the bar lower than it had ever been. It was hard to get excited for a Hellraiser sequel after that, especially learning that Doug Bradley would once again not be returning.
There was a silver lining, though, in learning the new film, Judgment, would be directed by Gary Tunnicliffe. An FX artist on nearly every entry in the franchise, Tunnicliffe made the decision to get into makeup when he saw the original Hellraiser (1987) in theaters, got onto the set for a few days of Hellraiser II (1988) and has been at the forefront from III onward. While he wrote the poorly received Revelations, that film was the first of the DTV entries to try to return to the original mythology and concepts. It was even the first of them to actually be written as a Hellraiser film rather than a reworking of an original script to attempt to fit the mythos.
At the very least, even though fans already knew Judgment would be made for pennies, it would be in the hands of someone who truly cared about the series and what Barker had built. Right off the bat, Judgment actually looks like a professional film, if still a micro-budget one. We never got that feeling from Revelations, which wore its cheapness on its sleeve, at most moments looking like it may as well have been Hellraiser: The XXX Parody.
Judgment feels bigger than it is because it is competently directed and even, for the most part, very well acted. The basic plot centers on a trio of detectives, two of them brothers, searching for a serial killer inspired by the Ten Commandments. Luckily, there are twists and turns and machinations playing out in the background that keep the film from being as generic as it would initially seem.
The detectives at the center of the plot do a very good job of making this feel like the Hellraiser cop drama it is clearly intent on being. Judgment also makes the effort to both adhere to and expand on existing Hellraiser mythology. This works better in some places than others, but the addition of different factions of demons and the appearance of angels all make sense for a post-Scarlet Gospels world.
For those who might not know, Clive Barker published a novel in 2015 to bring an end to the Pinhead character on his own terms—as the film rights had been taken from him a long time ago—resulting in a novel that expanded the Hellraiser universe to include the Judeo-Christian Hell, even culminating in a battle between Pinhead and Lucifer himself. A decade ago, actual angels and demons would have had no place in a Hellraiser movie, but with the recent reconfiguration of the mythology in both Scarlet Gospels and the 2011 comic book series, it’s a better fit now than it would have been then.
As a deep cut fan of the movies as well as the books and comics outside of the films, it’s exciting to actually see a sequel reference those dark corners of the Hellraiser world that have never really been illuminated on film. In one scene, just in the background, there are different boxes lined up on a shelf and some of them have different designs. To this point, the Lament Configuration is the only box we’ve seen in the movies, but the 1990 comics introduced a multitude of different boxes with different purposes, some that predate Lemerchand’s box by hundreds of years. The reference to these other designs as well as the fan-made creations that have been part of the Hellraiser community for years is much appreciated.
There are also attempts to bring new creatures and characters into the franchise as well. Old Cenobites like Stitch and the fan-favorite Chatterer make their return, but we’re also given new characters such as the aforementioned angel, as well as the Auditor. This character is easily one of the film’s standouts, maybe even the best thing about Judgment overall. It’s no surprise that Tunnicliffe would give the best part to himself, but in a movie of this size that he is also directing it could easily have been a recipe for disaster.
Instead, he gives a great performance. The character is creepy, but with a dry wit and some reaction shots to the things happening around him that might on their own warrant a second viewing. The Auditor is also the only denizen of Hell we’ve seen share significant screen time with Pinhead since Angelique back in Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996). He holds his own as an entirely different character that allows for an intriguing dynamic between the two, as the Auditor gets to occasionally take the piss out of the stoic, sphinx-like presence Pinhead has always been defined by.
There’s no way to talk about Judgment without talking about Paul T. Taylor’s performance as the Lead Cenobite, the Hell Priest Pinhead. Is he good? Yes, actually. Is he as good as Doug Bradley? No. Of course not. That was never going to be the case. Knowing that Bradley would not be returning for Judgment, many fans, myself included, wondered if it would really be necessary to include Pinhead at all. There are so many other Cenobites out there. Many of the comic stories got by without him.
If Pinhead was going to return, the movie needed a good reason for him to be there, which Revelations had not given. For the most part, Judgment succeeds at that, because this is honestly the first film to attempt to do anything new or drastic with the Pinhead character since Hellraiser III. From his introduction, this is a more tired and world-weary Pinhead than we’ve seen in the past, which in itself feels in line with both Scarlet Gospels and the 2011 comic series. Honestly, the fact that Pinhead’s in a different place than he’s been in the past makes it easier to see someone else in the role. Something happens at the end that is a major reference to the 2011 comic as well, but done completely in its own way. It’s a dramatic ending that allows major decisions to be made about Pinhead should the series continue to move forward from here.
From the ending of Judgment, without getting into what it is, the series could actually move forward without him if that was the direction they chose to go. Or they could attempt to do something truly unique and innovative with the character. Either one would honestly be an exciting avenue to explore. The prospects of where we could go from here make me more excited about the films than I’ve been in years.
Of course, there are problems. There are several moments in which the lack of budget rears its ugly head, as characters are repeatedly clearly walking across unfinished sets. While the facial makeups of the Cenobites are absolutely fantastic, the costumes for some characters border on abysmal. Pinhead looks great from the neck up, but everything below that is a far cry from his original costume. When the trailer hit, many fans pointed out that the Wire Twins didn’t look anything like they did in Inferno (2000), but that’s because these are actually different Cenobites.
In Hellseeker (2002) we were introduced to a female Cenobite named Stitch and in Deader (2005) we saw potentially another version of the same character. Here we appear to simply see the two of them together, which is once again a nice nod to franchise past.
While I understand the need for an indie horror film to use the name of an established genre star, I think it was a mistake for Judgment to bill Heather Langenkamp so highly as her role in the film is truly minimal. That’s not the fault of the production, really, as Langenkamp let it slip early on at a Q&A that she had a role in Judgment, which was also how the film itself was accidentally announced.
Overall, Judgment is a micro-budget horror movie and largely looks like one. If you go in looking for faults, there are plenty to find. But the clear amount of care that went into this, as well as the competent filmmaking on limited resources, cannot be understated. This isn’t the size or scale that a franchise as rich as Hellraiser should be forced to work on. Everyone, I think, knows that at this point. But on that level, it is still a breath of fresh air and a big step in the right direction.
The very fact that a straight-to-video Hellraiser movie, the tenth in the franchise, can even manage to somehow feel fresh is nothing short of a miracle.
Hellraiser: Judgment will be released on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD on February 13th.