Hellraiser: Judgment

4 out of 5

Directed by: Gary J. Tunnicliffe

I’m sure I’m now blind and stupid after having watched 10 Hellraisers in close succession, but the 10th entry – Judgment – is arguably on par with the best entries in the series, which I’d juggle between the original, and maybe Inferno, depending on the time of day.

I’ve been pretty critical of the franchise throughout, mainly because I don’t think anyone ever really clearly defined what it was, creator Clive Barker included.    Reading the wikipedia summary of his source short story on which he based the first film, there’s a lot of subtext (and context) that didn’t make its way into the movie, and the dialogue and situations simply aren’t up to the job of communicating much of that.  Some vague ideas of pain and pleasure; lots of hooks.  What does make it through in the first film – and ends up topping every subsequent one – is a consistent feeling that mixes dreams and nightmares with a kind of bondage-y campiness; the gore is gorgeous, the drama is soap opera guignol.  But we became obsessed with dem cenobites and dat blood, which made for some entertaining but also relatively hollow sequels, and then attempt after attempt after attempt to either add to the lore or retell the initial story, with some good offerings, some middling, and some rather poor.  But its been hard to say along the way: would I watch these movies if they weren’t Hellraiser movies?  (Add to that the irony that many of the sequels were repurposed scripts…)

Judgment, like Revelations before it, is a “make another movie before our rights to the series expire” bid by Dimension.  But like Revelations, which Judgment writer / director Gary J. Tunnicliffe also wrote, that shallow mandate was handled by some creatives who actually cared about the material.  With the previous film, that it was tossed together quickly was clear, but belief in the ideas shone through.  Hellraiser 10 had a similarly low budget, however, Tunnicliffe had been sitting on the script for a while.  Yes, less than half a mil only gets you a couple of sets and a small crew, but having a makeup effects artist helming the pic also helps to make sure those sets and the environs get some care, landing us in a good spot between a story and dialogue that has some new concepts and a touch of depth, and a Pinhead and Cenobites and other demonic creatures that look pretty damn good too.

I’m also going to go out on a limb here and say that the acting – which has been criticized – is above par for this thing.  The story focuses around three cops investigating a Biblically-themed serial killer, with the case tying into a house located at 55 Lament into which people are disappearing.  The serial killer bit isn’t really anything new, just gritty cop stuff, and the procedural aspects are rightfully maligned as being unrealistic, but I’d call back to the over-the-top emoting and dialogue of the first movie, and I think this kind of isolated, dreamlike vibe is right in line with that.  Plus, our three cops, played by Damon Carney, Randy Wayne, and Alexandra Harris, are all initially likeable characters – which hasn’t been the case in any Hellraiser movie – and I bought into each of their parts, even if they were carved out of cop stereotypes.  And then we get to some of the main denizens of 55 Lament (or the other landscapes it might cross in to): Paul T. Taylor’s Pinhead, and director Tunnicliffe as “The Auditor” – a new character who, in Tunnicliffe’s interesting mythology, takes note of one’s sins before they are processed through a weirdass cabal of Cenobite-adjacent creepos and passed on to Pinny for final judgment.  I am, myself, sinning by saying this, but Taylor’s take on Pinhead as a bored king – lamenting humanity’s capacity for torment amongst the modern landscape – was fascinating as heck, and carried a lot more presence than Doug Bradley for me.  (To be fair, though, Bradley had often been limited by his scripts, and had a more minimal role in the first film, which set the standard…)  I also found The Auditor to be super fun and fascinating, hitting the kooky creepy mark in a way that Rob Zombie would be jealous of.

You’ll have easily sussed out where things are going and how the cop / Hell portions of the plot will cross over, and ultimately, Judgment is much thinner on story than it is on visual ideas, but I wasn’t bored at any point in the movie, nor did I find any piece of it to be a huge stretch or a waste of time, and Tunnicliffe’s shifting of the Hellraiser lore into Heaven and Hell ideologies was the intended kick in the pants the setup needed to actually expand, although who knows if / when we’ll get to see it do so.  Judgment also deserves an official soundtrack release.

My confession here is that I shotgunned the entire Hellraiser series precisely because I wanted to watch Judgment.  I’d seen 1 – 3 years back and stopped caring between now and then, but the visuals that emerged during Judgment’s release had me curious, despite meh reviews.  After watching them all, I wasn’t expecting much, but was pleased for the series to actually end on a couple of high notes, with this tenth entry sitting alongside my favorites.  (Even though I had to look away for all the spitting and vomiting, which I guess you gorehounds like.)