After two years of first love, first sex, first breakup, and first breakup sex, I finally moved on by looking back.
I was 20 years old and a friend of mine from high school was in town. As teenagers, she’d dated my best friend and, as heterosexuals, we took that boundary seriously. We got closer, we flirted, we will-they-won’t-theyed, and then she graduated and won’t was decided.
Now, years later, giddy with nostalgia and sangria, the question had returned. We kissed and the excitement of our history wrapped itself around our tongues. But once we started fucking, the excitement wore off. The longer we fucked — which I’m sure wasn’t long as a 20 year old boy three months post-breakup — the more I yearned for the charge of our flirtation. The sex itself was just fine.
The much anticipated Hellraiser (2022) starts off like a great first kiss.
Goran Visnjic and Hiam Abbass as a billionaire and his assistant both have the sinister sexiness perfect for a franchise that began as a nightmare of desire from gay horror genius Clive Barker. They lead a male sex worker (Kit Clarke) to a kinky demise and I was in. Cut to title card. Cut to two people ferociously fucking. We hadn’t even met Jamie Clayton’s Hell Priest yet and I was already having a blast. Unfortunately, the film quickly pivots.
Our coital couple are Riley (Odessa A’zion) and Trevor (Drew Starkey), two people who met in recovery and seem to be in a situationship. Riley lives with her overprotective brother Matt (Brandon Flynn), his caring boyfriend Colin (Adam Faison), and another roommate Nora (Aoife Hinds). Matt doesn’t approve of Trevor nor does he trust his sister who is six months sober and can’t pay rent.
Riley has a job, but as any millennial knows, having a job and having enough money for rent aren’t the same thing. Trevor suggests they break into this unattended storage unit that he’s certain has some “billionaire shit.”
That billionaire shit happens to be the puzzle box and after getting kicked out by her brother and relapsing, Riley unlocks the cursed object bringing the wrath of the Cenobites — extradimensional kink demons — upon her and her loved ones.
This new Hellraiser, made by the creative team behind 2020’s The Night House, has very different goals than the original film. Their puzzle box and Cenobites still represent forbidden desire, but lust has been replaced with an addiction allegory. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but the metaphor is explicitly communicated rather than felt. We are told that Riley is an addict and the puzzle box is her new vice — we do not feel her desire the way we felt sexual desire in the original film.
The Cenobite design and how the kills manifest feel stuck in the previous installments. They were meant to be kinky and they still feel kinky. They continue to evoke BDSM rather than the substances they’re now meant to represent. Of course, they could represent all forbidden desire — sex and drugs — but the film doesn’t suggest this or explore anything beyond its simple allegory.
What works most about the new Hellraiser are its leads. Odessa A’zion’s performance makes up for a lot of what the script lacks. She adds subtlety to the obvious, nuance to the blunt. The closest the film comes to showing instead of telling is in her portrayal of desire and guilt. She’s a unique final girl with a sticky tomboy swagger.
And then, of course, there’s Jamie Clayton. Every time she’s on screen as the Hell Priest, the film shimmers with its potential. She’s sexy and seductive and makes the role wholly her own. Never has a Cenobite felt so irresistible — without losing what makes that character so scary.
Clayton’s transness has nothing to do with the film’s thematic core. Nor does Riley having a gay brother. In some ways, this is an achievement. In the 35 years since Barker’s original film, we’ve gone from queerness forced into subtext to queerness as inconsequential. But it’s hard not to feel like we skipped a step, like this sort of casual inclusion isn’t a replacement for horror explicitly portraying and concerned with our lives.
With good and great performances and more than competent direction, this new Hellraiser isn’t the worst sex of your life. It’s just far from the best. And the longer it goes on — two whole hours — the more you might find yourself missing the original’s flirtation.
When it comes to queer horror, Hellraiser (2022) is a reminder that the people behind the camera matter just as much as who’s on-screen.