Written and Directed by: Gary J. Tunnicliffe
Starring: Damon Carney, Randy Wayne, and Paul T. Taylor
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Evil seeks evil.
Few horror fan-bases can claim to have endured as much as Hellraiser devotees, whose suffering has been legendary. For over 20 years, they’ve essentially been wandering in the wilderness, awaiting a savior to finally arrive to do Clive Barker’s original vision any kind of justice since Pinhead found himself in the clutches of Dimension Films. During that time, several different filmmakers have stepped up to the plate, some taking wilder, more ambitious swings than others, but all have decidedly whiffed nonetheless. For various reasons—be it the studio’s meddling or its extreme indifference—no one has come close to recapturing the utter grandeur of the franchise’s first two entries (or even the entertaining splatter movie excess of the underrated Hell on Earth). Instead, most of the direct-to-video sequels have felt more like stand-ins than actual movies, produced mostly so Dimension can retain the franchise rights for a long-promised remake that’s been dangled like a carrot before fans, only to be cruelly swiped away and replaced with insulting, low-budget nonsense.
Like most of the sequels before it, Hellraiser: Judgement exists for only this reason: someone at Dimension noticed the rights were set to expire, once again putting the wheels in motion for another franchise entry to be dreaded rather than legitimately anticipated. But to its credit, Judgment at least feels like something of a genuine attempt, as long-time franchise effects artist Gary J. Tunnicliffe takes the helm and does his best to steer Hellraiser back to something approaching decency. We’d obviously like to see him shoot for greatness, but baby steps are in order—plus, a realistic outlook acknowledges that there’s only so much he can do with the obvious budget constraints that keep Judgment from reaching such heights.
Unlike most of the Dimension sequels, Judgment actually began life as an actual Hellraiser script, one that finds Pinhead (Paul T. Taylor) and his minions lamenting the state of the modern world, whose technology makes it all too easy for folks to indulge their sick fantasies. Lest you start having traumatic flashbacks to the likes of Hellworld, fret not: Pinhead and the Cenobites only see this as an opportunity to step up their game, so they make it their mission to seek out the most depraved souls on Earth and subject them their cruel brand of justice. A 12-minute prologue sequence reveals that they’ve shacked up in an abandoned house, where the Auditor (Tunnicliffe) takes stock of these damned souls’ crimes and misdeeds. His audit—which is typed onto human flesh, naturally—is passed on to a gluttonous Assessor (John Gulager), who literally consumes the Auditor’s pages to process the information before a jury (a trio of topless women whose flesh has been flayed from their face) renders a verdict.
It’s all rather macabre and abstract: imagine the Twin Peaks Black Lodge reimagined a grimy, grungy torture dungeon, and you get the picture. For the first time in years, you at least sense that someone is trying to genuinely tap into Clive Barker’s brand of violent, twisted madness. With Tunnicliffe in charge, it certainly captures the visceral, stomach-churning vibe of Barker’s work, even if the limited resources can’t capture the grand scale that feel’s required to capture the true breadth and width of Pinhead’s machinations. Still, the attempt to delve into the mythology and see Pinhead as more than a plot device is appreciated—it’s just too bad that it all begins to get caught up in the wash and put on the backburner, an all too familiar fate for him in these DTV entries.
Because once the prologue is finished, the actual plot is revealed: Sean and David Carter (Damon Carney & Randy Wayne)—a pair of brothers who are also partner detectives—have been investigating the sordid case of the Preceptor, a serial killer who exacts Old Testament justice on his victims. After being frustrated for months, they’re joined by Detective Christine Egerton (Alexandra Harris), who’s been dispatched by higher-ups to bring a swift end to this case. As the trio digs deeper into clues involving the victims, they’re drawn to the mysterious house inhabited by Pinhead and company, who obviously take a great interest in the grisly proceedings.
Judgment is the most respectable Hellraiser movie since Inferno, which is to say it definitely has its heart in the right place. Despite everything working against it, it manages to be compelling enough even when Pinhead isn’t around: sure, the thrust of the serial killer plot feels directly lifted from Seven, but Tunnicliffe indulges the premise for all its gory, gross potential—well, within the budget constraints of course. That’s the common refrain here: you watch Judgment thinking it could really be something if it could just be bigger and filled out with even more rich details. An early crime scene captures this frustrating dynamic perfectly: we watch as our three leads investigate a laughably empty apartment that would be swarming with people if this movie had any kind of budget. Instead, we watch these three examine a corpse that’s hoarding an extremely ghastly secret, one that captures just what type of person the enigmatic Preceptor is. Unfortunately, though, this early scene is his peak in this regard, presumably because Tunnicliffe didn’t have enough resources at his disposal to stage more.
He tries his best to compensate with the procedural aspects, but this, too, is betrayed by the nagging sense that it could be better. Neither Carney nor Wayne is particularly convincing as hard-boiled detectives: the former is feels a poor man's Aaron Eckhart, while the latter just doesn’t feel seasoned enough. Harris fares a bit better, but you can’t shake the feeling that all three of these characters are utterly disposable: at its best, Hellraiser weaves twisted, perverse tales of lust, greed, ambition, and temptation through genuinely captivating characters. Even when Judgment does resort to interpersonal drama by exploring Sean’s marital turmoil, it—and the accompanying story twist—lands with a thud because there’s no actual investment here. You never feel like this set of characters is anything more than chess pieces on a Hellraiser board, waiting to be moved into Pinhead’s path.
As such, you’re left once again with a Hellraiser sequel where you’re impatiently waiting for the Cenobites to appear and spice up the proceedings. They practically disappear for long stretches here, which would be fine if they were integrated more seamlessly—ironically enough, Judgment feels just as disjointed as most of the recent sequels in this respect despite being conceived as a Hellraiser movie. Two decidedly different movies are colliding here: one is a rote serial killer procedural, while the other, much more interesting half dares to peek behind the curtain to find a disaffected Pinhead who’s seemingly grown bored by his existence (and who wouldn't be after featuring in these sequels, am I right?) You can certainly see how the two could come together in satisfying fashion, but Judgment lacks the connective tissue to pull it off. Ultimately, the entire serial killer subplot comes off as perfunctory: not only are those characters chess pieces, but it turns out they’re actual pawns within a larger battle between Pinhead and his superiors.
Admittedly, this stuff is a breath of fresh air, as Judgment seeks to open up the Hellraiser mythology and introduce some new concepts that nod into the direction of Barker’s own Scarlet Gospels. Hell and its emissaries have obviously been commonplace, but this film reveals the presence of actual angels doing the Lord’s work, providing Pinhead with a natural foil. While this is again realized in chintzy fashion thanks to the budget, it’s arguably the most interesting wrinkle to be added to the franchise mythology since Bloodline: the notion of Pinhead growing weary and contemplating going rouge is an intriguing sight indeed, as is the appearance of numerous puzzle boxes here beyond the familiar Lament Configuration. Pinhead is one of the few exceptions to the rule that horror icons become less interesting if you attempt to humanize them or explore their backstory: there’s always been something interesting lurking behind him, and Taylor does a decent job of subbing in for Doug Bradley, even if this turn of events would have been much more impactful with the latter back in the role. The dimensions added here at least hint at that larger, grandiose canvas that attracted our imaginations in the first place.
Unfortunately, Judgment is doomed to forever leave much of those implications to your imagination. Just when it starts to really kick into gear and feel like an interesting Hellraiser movie, it’s forced to quit, save for an obligatory post-credits sequence that seems to curiously undo the climax. It’s as frustrating as ever, perhaps even more so since Tunnicliffe obviously wants to do right by a franchise he’s been around for over 20 years. No, Judgment doesn’t reach the dregs of the worst DTV sequels, but it’s still a reminder that this franchise is being squandered all the same. Fans can at least take some small comfort in the notion that it represents a decent “ending” of sorts—mercifully, Revelations won’t be the last word.
However, that’s such a low bar to clear, and I’d be lying if I said I’m not left in exactly the same place I’ve been for years now: anxiously awaiting the day when someone with a vision and resources can shepherd Hellraiser back to glory with a top-to-bottom reimagining, be it Barker himself or someone else. Kudos to Tunnicliffe for at least restoring some semblance of respectability to it—now it’s time for us to truly taste Hellraiser’s pleasures again.
Hellraiser: Judgment will be available on DVD/Blu-ray on February 13th courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment. Supplements include a pair of deleted scenes and a gag reel.
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