In He Said/She Said, critics Joe and Valeska dissect a film in a back and forth email exchange. Previously, we decided to list and not love the Netflix original The Open House (2017). This time, we’re debating whether or not Hellraiser: Judgment (2018) has any sights worth showing you.
Let’s bitch it out…
Synopsis: Three detectives – Sean Carter (Damon Carney), his brother David Carter (Randy Wayne) and Christine Egerton (Alexandra Harris) – trying to stop a diabolical serial killer are sucked into a maze of otherworldly horror, where hellish denizens including the Auditor (Gary J. Tunnicliffe), the Assessor (John Gulager), the Jury and – of course – Pinhead (Paul T. Taylor) await to pass judgment.
First off, I feel like I should apologize because watching this film was torture. Full stop. That is 82 minutes of our lives that we will never get back and if nothing else, I hope that our exchange will help encourage viewers to stay far, far away from this atrocious excuse for a film.
Now that that‘s out of the way, let’s try to make heads or tails of this nonsense. Where shall we begin: the vomit? The treatment of women? The flat set design and DOA dialogue? The pretentious use of Dickens and biblical references? Oh my, this film is a hot mess.
I definitely think that a large part of my displeasure stems from the fact that I love the concept of the Hellraiser franchise and, in particular, those first two films.* That goodwill, however, has been steadily whittled away over a series of excretable direct-to-video sequels, the vast majority of which were actually original (read: non-Hellraiser) scripts that were tweaked to feature Pinhead, the Cenobites and a vague notion of justice. Since Judgment was always designed as a Hellraiser script, I thought perhaps that longtime make-up artist turned director Gary J. Tunnicliffe could turn things around. Sadly, this is most certainly not the case.
*My love affair with the franchise is why I ultimately chose to write about the character of Claire Higgins for my contribution to the inaugural issue of your fantastic horror publication, Grim.
What is most apparent from suffering through watching the film is that Tunnicliffe has mistaken what fans are most interested in from this franchise. The themes of torture, the police procedural angle (which dominates all of the direct to video films) and the excessive reliance on gore-for-gore’s-sake offer audiences nothing if the characters are uninteresting, if the dialogue is leaden, if the plot is incomprehensible and if the stakes are meaningless.
Hellraiser: Judgment is a stunning example of what happens when a studio is forced to produce a new film or lose the rights. This isn’t a labour of love; it’s certainly not a film that was made because the story needed to be made. It’s a sloppy, unwatchable mess made on the cheap in the hopes that Dimension can turn a piece of shit into a profit and continue to pump a rights-retaining entry to gullible fans every few years. And that is a truly sad state of affairs for those of us who hold the franchise dear.
Valeska, as someone with less investment in the Hellraiser franchise, what were your thoughts on the film? Did anything capture your attention or affection?
I accept your apology. But you’re on thin ice, friend.
It’s true, I’m far less steeped in Hellraiser lore than you are. While I loved the first one, I don’t think I’ve seen any sequels past the second one. You mention that this script was one of the few actually intended from the start to be part of the series, but throughout my viewing experience of Judgment, I couldn’t shake the impression that this was a Cloverfield Paradox situation where the Cenobites were shoehorned in after the fact.
Tonally and thematically, it felt miles away from the Hellraiser that I loved. As you mention, much of the film is straight up police procedural, with a few horror sequences sprinkled in. I will say that I did enjoy a lot of the horror imagery, which felt like equal parts Silent Hill, Saw, and The Cell. I felt like the first 11 minutes or so could have stood alone as an effective horror short (and, had that been the case, my overall score for the film may have been significantly higher).
I was struck by how masculine and patriarchal this film felt, in comparison to the original Hellraiser. We’ve swapped Julia and Kirsty for a pair of straightlaced detective brothers, and the consensual kink and sexual curiosity that lent the original much of its delicious queer overtones have disappeared; instead, we’re dealing with pedophilia, misogynistic serial killing, and run-of-the-mill adultery. Not only that, but we’re also “treated” to multiple sequences of blatant objectification of women, as you alluded to earlier — the judgment sequences, though otherwise rather cool and interesting, do feature a trio of nude women for no particular reason. If Hellraiser found its niche as a queer classic of horror cinema, Hellraiser: Judgment is a watered-down version intended for bro consumption. Pity.
As you say, the wooden performances do the film no favours. Judgment lacks the charismatic, entertaining, and sympathetic characters of the first two films. I couldn’t tell you the name of either brother and can barely recall their faces, and I watched this only three days ago. Even with better performances, though, that script still wouldn’t recapture the singular magic that the franchise once held.
Do we want to talk about that ending, Joe? And do you think the franchise just signed its own death certificate with this release?
Alas, if you’d seen the vast majority of the other direct-to-vid releases, you’d find this on par with the others. I will assume that if this one performs even moderately well on VOD (blame curious fans), we can probably assume that Dimension will continue to pump these out. As you suggested: pity. A little love, a bigger budget and – dear lord, please! – a stronger script and Hellraiser could easily be a viable franchise competitor again.
In truth, aside from the gruesome imagery of the beginning, the open-ended climax of the film feels like the only topic worth discussing, so I’m glad you raised it. I’ll confess I completely blanked on who the blonde woman Pinhead attempts to swindle is, but the final image of our de-Cenobited “lead” is…intriguing? I’m unsure if this paints the franchise into a corner (the vast majority of the sequels simply omit any knowledge of the others, so this could be a non-starter) but it does present an opportunity to try something new.
Like other 80s slashers, fans are more enamoured by the villains than the humans, so the opportunity to follow Pinhead could entice disillusioned fans to make the return trek back. At the same time, I’m unclear how a film could be built around such a rocky foundation. Is it simply Pinhead attempting to regain his powers by hunting down these Judgement characters in their new Berlin location (teased in the post-credits sequence)? Or would it be less procedural? There’s certainly room to play with, but without a firmly rooted story and fleshed out characters (sorry, couldn’t resist), Hellraiser will continue to toil in the doghouse of other more beloved franchises.
Valeska, if you could propose a potential sequel direction, what would it be? Or should the whole thing simply be rebooted (which has been the other conversation on the table for the last decade or so)?
That’s a really good question. After thinking about it, I’m going to have to lean toward the reboot idea. I don’t want a film following Pinhead’s quest to regain his dark power and status. I’m of the opinion that, when it comes to the Cenobites, less is more. I want them lurking in the shadows, summoned by desire; I want them to be a threat, not a focus. I’m going to propose an embargo on future Hellraiser sequels for He Said/She Said (unless Clive Barker is involved somehow). Sound good?
Overall, I’m going to give this a 4 out of 10, because some of the imagery was actually pretty cool and I still have a (rapidly waning) soft spot for those Cenobites. I imagine your score will be a bit lower overall?
Yes, this is a sad 2/10 for me. I’m all for the embargo. Unless there’s a leadership change or a shift in creative priorities at Dimension, Hellraiser is stuck in a hell the likes of which even the Cenobites can’t escape.
Next time: We’re babysitting, playing with Ouija boards and staring at the eclipse with surprise Spanish possession flick, Veronica (2017).