The original Hellraiser (1987) was released over 30 years with its first sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (1988), hitting theaters a year later. You’ll be forgiven for not knowing that Hellraiser films have continued to be be sporadically released since those first two films with the majority of these sequels going straight to video since the mid-1990s. Remarkably, the recently released Hellraiser: Judgment (2018) marks the tenth film in the franchise. Directed by Gary J. Tunnicliffe and starring Paul T. Taylor, the third actor to play series’ antagonist Pinhead, Hellraiser: Judgment is available now on Blu-ray and limited streaming services.
In Hellraiser: Judgment, brothers and police detectives, David and Sean Carter are chasing down a serial killer known as the “Preceptor”, who is responsible for a series of grisly murders patterned after the Ten Commandments. Joined by a new partner, Christine Egerton, the detectives are eventually drawn to the demonic realm ruled over by Pinhead and his Cenobites. When one of the brothers is caught and subsequently escapes judgment from Pinhead and the Stygian Inquisition, he will have to find a way to close the doorway to Hell before he is dragged back again.
The good news for Hellraiser fans is that Judgment marks a significant upgrade in quality from the straight-to-video sequels of the last decade and a half. This film actually feels like a Hellraiser film and spiritual sequel to the original films from the 1980s. Unfortunately, Judgment references Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities and much like that novel’s famous quote, the film is the “best and worst of times” with two converging storylines that leave a disjointed overall feel to the film.
Judgment works best when it’s spending time in the demonic realm – for the first time in two decades the Cenobite mythology of the original films has been expanded in a creative direction. In its extended opening scene, director Tunnicliffe re-acquaints the audience with Pinhead and new demonic characters The Auditor and the Stygian Inquisition. Played by Tunnicliffe himself, The Auditor, is an instantly memorable addition the Cenobite mythology, utterly bizarre and captivating as he “interviews” sinners to “audit” their immoral pasts. The level of detail Tunnicliffe devotes to his vision of this inquisition and its various grotesqueries places Judgment back within the Hellraiser universe. It’s a much dirtier and grimy ‘Hell’ from the first two Hellraiser films, a function of budget constraints, but also one that gives its audience a unique and evocative image. The Auditor records the sins of his captives, for example, with a typewriter that uses blood for ink and human flesh for its paper. Like the original Hellraiser, Pinhead is more of an omnipresent source of evil in Judgment, appearing a little more sparingly, which actually better serves the character. Hellraiser fans will undoubtedly still miss series regular Doug Bradly, but Taylor is perfectly fine in the role of Pinhead.
Where Judgment stumbles is in its real-world setting and storyline focused on the police investigation of ‘The Preceptor.’ This aspect of the film’s narrative drags, having a hard time shaking its budget constraints and more derivative story elements. Whether intentional or not, ‘The Preceptor’ story will remind viewers of David Fincher’s Se7en, and Judgment does itself no favours drawing that comparison. The acting performances aren’t terrible but they are somewhat bland and certainly lack the dramatic heft necessary to carry the film when its supernatural elements are not onscreen. Ultimately, the police narrative feels tacked on to a Hellraiser story and the forces that drive these plots together can’t help but feel convoluted.
In spite of some of these storyline stumbles, Tunnicliffe clearly has a passion for the Hellraiser series and shows some innovation with the low budget – he unveils some of the most grotesquely unique visions of ‘Hell’ in the series to date. Audiences should be forewarned that Judgment offers some stomach-churning explicit gore, particularly in its opening scene. Hellraiser: Judgment is unlikely to win over new fans, and I’m not sure this film makes a strong case for more Hellraiser films, but series’ devotees will find enough here to make them happy.