How Hellraiser (2022) Changes the Lore of the Original

Hulu’s Hellraiser reboot makes some devilish changes to the lore that Clive Barker established in his 1987 cult classic horror movie.

Hellraiser (2022) vs Hellraiser (1987)
Photo: Miramax / Entertainment Film / Hulu

This weekend’s anticipated Hellraiser movie is being marketed as a reboot. All the trailers and ads tease of familiar sensations, and suggest that we’re going back to the original source material for Clive Barker’s twisted mingling of pleasure and pain, dominance and submission.

But in truth, this movie could almost function as a sequel to the original Hellraiser flicks—or at least the handful of early good ones before the series devolved into straight-to-VHS and DVD self-parody. The 2022 picture is a new story with all new characters that narratively does not revisit, even in passing, the psychosexual melodrama that everyone forgets underpins Barker’s original 1987 movie, as well as the Barker-penned novella it was based on, The Hellbound Heart. The original is a story about a small family where some members are decent and “normal,” like an oblivious father and his concerned twentysomething daughter, and some are already halfway down the primrose path, such as the father’s wife and his brother, who are always seeking the forbidden pleasure of adultery. Either way, they all seem a little complicit in the need to… explore the farthest reaches of experience.

Hellraiser (2022) is a different story entirely, one loosely about the destructive allure of addiction, and the lingering scars and regret it leaves behind. And if it were not for the fact that Barker’s chief Hell Priest, Pinhead, is now played by Jamie Clayton, it theoretically could just be an extension of that first movie’s hellishness… well, except for the tweaked Hellraiser lore that the new movie creates whole cloth.

Hellraiser (2022) is, for better and worse, its own beast. So here are the biggest ways it differs from Hellraiser and the only sequel that Barker had substantial involvement in, Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988).

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The Lament Configuration Evolves

The flesh of Pinhead’s victims is not the only thing that’s bent in surprising and unnatural shapes. In Hulu’s variation on Hellraiser, the Lament Configuration (aka that shiny little puzzle box) transforms into bizarre forms and designs too. This is evident in the 2022 movie’s first scene where a poor dumb kid named Joey (Kit Clarke) wanders into what’s clearly a bad juju room owned by a sinister billionaire named Voight (Goran Visnjic).

Voight not so subtly goads Joey into playing with what is clearly meant to be the Lament Configuration, but it looks… off. Rather than a perfectly cube-shaped box, it has an almost hourglass figure, and to solve its riddle, Joey must twist it closer to the shape of a diamond… or the Leviathan from Hellraiser II (a lusty monstrosity that also uses magic to transform the cube-box in that ‘88 flick).

After Joey succeeds at solving the puzzle, a blade ejects from the box and cuts Joey’s hand. If you have a faint idea about the Hellraiser mythology, you can guess what comes next: chains, screams, and more blood. Yet right down to that raised blade, we’re fairly removed from the way things worked in the original Hellraiser.

In that film, vaguely supernatural-like figures in distant, exoticized lands sell the cube-like Lament Configuration to perverts and sadomasochists who are promised the most extreme pleasures of their lives if they can solve its puzzle. It’s that temptation that appeals to Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman), a degenerate who has the flesh peeled from his bones in the 1987 movie’s opening sequence.

In the 2022 movie, however, each potential “explorer” (read: victim) of Pinhead’s Church of Pain is just one step in a larger game. We later discover that the Leviathan-shaped puzzle box we saw at the beginning of the movie is the Lament Configuration’s final form. As another future victim tells the movie’s heroine Riley (Odessa A’zion), the box has stages of configurations. When Riley first unwisely begins fiddling with it, the puzzle is in the shape of the familiar cube. But after solving the first mystery, she unlocks a larger game… especially because by pure chance her hand is able to avoid the blade that would slice her flesh.

Indeed, the 2022’s Lament box demands a blood sacrifice, which is somewhat in keeping with the 1987 movie, conceptually. In that film and its source material, one of the characters accidentally bleeds on the spot where Frank was abducted by the Cenobites, as well as where his last drop of semen landed. This is the inciting incident that summons the undead and skin-less version of Frank back to our dimension. In the 2022 movie, a drop (or river) of blood is needed to land on the solved Lament Configuration for the Cenobites to come out and play.

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The Cenobites Are More Inclined to Make Deals

In the original Hellraiser movies, poor Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) has no idea what she’s playing with when she solves the Lament Configuration in her hospital bed. Not that the Cenobites—i.e. Hell Priests in kinky S&M bondage—care. They yearn to spread their good word across her virgin flesh, and laugh at her constant pleas to make bargains to save her own skin. In Hellraiser (1987), they only spare her from eternal torment at first because she offers them Frank, the one who got away. But afterward they still try to tear her soul apart.

When her path crosses with the Cenobites again in Hellraiser II, Doug Bradley’s legendary Pinhead admonishes Kirsty: “Time to play. No more deals, Kirsty. It is your flesh we want to experience, not your skill at bargaining.”

Conversely, Clayton’s Pinhead loves a good bargain. This ties into the above changes made to the Lament Configuration. If you happen to be as lucky as the new heroine Riley is in avoiding the box’s blade during the first configuration, Pinhead appears to offer you a reprieve—provided you “feed the box” by finding someone else to be taken. Perpetually high and tripping for the first half of the movie, Riley isn’t sure what’s exactly real or why the people who keep accidentally getting pricked by the puzzle box vanish.

But as she realizes what has happened, Pinhead appears to her repeatedly to bargain, even bending the rules to encourage Riley to keep playing, sometimes by letting her sacrifice a fellow Cenobite to the box, and sometimes by allowing her to pick a secondary victim by blood sacrifice after Voight gets in the way. The Cenobites are practically like a concierge desk where they want to make sure Riley is satisfied with her service. Have it your own way.

These changes feel as if they were made out of necessity by the 2022 Hellraiser’s director, David Bruckner, and its several screenwriters, including David S. Goyer. First, it creates an actual slasher movie structure where one by one, characters need to be picked off by the Cenobites. The original Hellraiser movies were actually far more bizarre and esoteric in their structure, despite delving into much of the same ‘80s slasher imagery as the later Nightmare on Elm Street movies (also in Barker’s movies, it’s the young people outliving the adults). By comparison, this escalating deal-making in ‘22 keeps the story going in a more traditional slasher movie structure, complete with multiple teenage/young person victims.

Secondly, it allows audiences to more easily root for Pinhead and the Cenobites. Sure, they mutilated Riley’s brother off-screen, but onscreen Pinhead is supportive of Riley, encouraging her to use the box to feed them only baddies by the movie’s third act. Whereas Doug Bradley’s original Pinhead seemed to care little as to whether you were innocent or deviant, Jamie Clayton’s is helping a final girl look for the loopholes.

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Ironically, this appears to mirror (whether by accident or intention) one of the many bad direct-to-DVD Hellraiser movies, Hellseeker (2002). In that flick, Laurence was brought back for the first time since the ‘80s to throw Kirsty’s character under the bus. Here Kirsty agrees to give Pinhead five souls in exchange for not going to Hell, in the biblical “capital H” concept of the phrase.

Rewards of the Flesh

The other big structural innovation that comes out of multiple puzzle box configurations is that it creates a building narrative momentum: what do you get for completing the box’s six configurations? The dastardly Voight hints at this in the 2022 movie’s opening scene when he teases he will be given a reward if Joey solves the Lament Configuration.

As it turns out, each person who successfully feeds six victims to the box—presumably with Pinhead’s cheerleading in visions—is granted a choice of gifts. Among those offered are “Power,” “Sensation,” “Love,” and “Lamentation.” We later learn that Voight chose “Sensation” at the beginning of the movie, bizarrely thinking like Frank he’d be gifted sexual ecstasy by the kink demons. Instead he has some magical device implanted into his guts and nervous system where it will randomly twist and turn forever, causing the maximum amount of pain (or sensation) without letting him go numb. After six years of this agony, he’s desperate to steal Riley’s prize for some relief.

Riley eventually makes the right choice of “Lamentation,” which turns out to be an obscure way of saying, “Please don’t take me to Torture Land.” But Voight? The poor sick bastard is tricked by Pinhead to replace “Sensation,” with “Power.” This leads us to another big revelation in the new lore of the franchise…

How Cenobites Are Made

In Hellbound: Hellraiser II, we learn that Bradley’s Pinhead was once a man named Capt. Elliot Spencer, a member of the British Army circa World War I. It appears Capt. Spencer played with the Lament Configuration and got tormented by the Leviathan so badly that he came to worship from the deity’s Book of Pain, forgetting he was even once human. It’s implied that all of the Cenobites were created in a similar fashion.

Hellraiser (2022) plays a similar but strikingly different game. Whereas all of the puzzle box’s victims in the original have the capacity to become a Cenobite (presumably with the most gifted masochists eventually graduating to the role of the Leviathan’s “angels”), the victims of the box in the 2022 movie seem to genuinely die. Only those who’ve succeeded at feeding six victims to the box like Voight and Riley get the privilege, nay the pleasure, of Cenobite-hood.

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As aforementioned, the new Pinhead tricks Voight to exchange his “Sensation” for “Power,” which is their greatest gift. It is bestowed on them by the Leviathan, who is the godlike power that rules over their dimension, or “the Labyrinth,” as it’s called in Hellraiser II. We see a chain drag Voight toward the Leviathan and, much like an evil psychologist in the ’88 movie, he is tortured and mutilated to the point of enjoying it. It’s heavily hinted at that this will make him a Cenobite like Pinhead in future movies.

Is This Heaven or Hell?

One of the positives of the 2022 version of Hellraiser is it does away the muddied confusion as to whether the Cenobites’ Labyrinth is Hell in the Judeo-Christian sense, or if it’s simply a nightmarish parallel universe. The first Hellraiser movie and novella seemed to suggest the latter, but even in Hellraiser II, the details became muddy. The floating, diamond-shaped creature called Leviathan is clearly not Lucifer; it is simply a hungry god of lust and pain. All of its subjects are forced to submit for seemingly eternity to that religion, as they cannot die but persist on-and-on, with skin and without.

But the same movie also suggests that Kirsty’s father, who was a solid bloke in the original ’87 movie, might have been sent to Hell after he died in the first movie (it’s vague). This suggests that the dimension can be an afterlife destination for anyone on Earth, and indeed when Kirsty explores the Labyrinth, there are also psychological constructs created meant to torment her, and later her damned Uncle Frank. But this was likely just narrative soup created because the filmmakers wanted to have some fantasy sequences akin to Nightmare on Elm Street.

Later direct-to-DVD sequels straight up turned the Labyrinth into the Judeo-Christian Hell of the Bible. When Kirsty dies in Hellseeker, she’s sent to Hell for unknown reasons and bargains with Pinhead for a reprieve from all his delicious suffering.

The 2022 movie clarifies for good and all that in its version of the lore, the Labyrinth (if that’s what it’s called here) is another dimension and not an afterlife. In fact, it seems their victims do not persist forever like in the 1987 movie, but rather expire, with Pinhead telling Riley that “your brother’s end was exquisite.”

So this clears up at least one of the more confusing aspects of the original franchise. Whether it will be the catalyst for a new era of Pinhead movies, with new sights to show us, remains to be seen.

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