'Hellraiser,' Reimagined: A Female Pinhead, Addiction Exploration, Alienesque Cenobites

'I wouldn't say it's strict canon. We let our imaginations run with this,' director David Bruckner says of the new film.
by Annie Lyons — 

Jamie Clayton in 'Hellraiser'

Spyglass Media Group

After 10 films across 35 years, Hellraiser has ensnared its chains into a reimagining. 

Renowned British horror author Clive Barker's Cenobites, extra-dimensional beings dedicated to the extremities of experience, first descended in 1987's Hellraiser. Nicknamed by fans as "Pinhead," the aloof and intelligent lead Cenobite set himself apart from contemporary horror villains found in such slashers as Halloween or Friday the 13th. He wasn't a silent evil punishing humans without discrimination. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, humans summoned the Cenobites with an otherworldly puzzle box. 

"They're interdimensional BDSM demons that throw chains at you from a labyrinth. It's complicated stuff to get right," David Bruckner, director of the new film, which is also titled Hellraiser, explains. 

Bruckner felt a "responsibility" to honor the original material, namely Barker's 1987 film and his source novella, The Hellbound Heart. Working off a screenplay from his The Night Housecollaborators Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, he sought to capture the story's thematic spirit — the intermingling of pain and pleasure, punishment and desire — while exploring a new narrative focused on addiction and compulsive behavior. 

While he believes his new version, out on Hulu Oct. 7, "fits within the world of Hellraiser and what you've seen before in many ways, I wouldn't say it's strict canon. We let our imaginations run with this."

The film delves deeper into lore surrounding the puzzle box and how its various configurations connect to the human experience, as seen through the eyes of Riley (Odessa A'zion), a young woman struggling with addiction. 

After she robs a seemingly abandoned storage unit with her new boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey), Riley finds the strange object. She's fascinated by the box, unaware that solving it summons the sadomasochistic Cenobites. But when her older brother Matt (Brandon Flynn) mysteriously disappears, Riley grows convinced the box is somehow connected and begins investigating, entangling Matt's boyfriend Colin (Adam Faison) and their roommate Nora (Aoife Hinds) in the ensuing gory mess. 

As expected, Pinhead (referred to formally as the Priest) descends into the mix and assures the crew she has such sights to show them. Jamie Clayton now plays the iconic Cenobite, a role mostly associated with Doug Bradley, who portrayed the character for the first eight films. The Sense8 actor felt that Bradley's "incredible" performance was inimitable and wanted to find her own avenue to help the film stand on its own two feet. 

"I didn't want to be compared or have people be like, 'Oh, she nicked that from him, she's doing that thing that he did,'" she explains, adding that she believes that is one of the reasons producers wanted a woman to play the role: "because it takes the burden off the audience of that comparison."

For Clayton, achieving the Priest's look required a demanding physical process. She wore extensive makeup and needed to be lubed into a heavy, constrictive silicone suit. 

"Depending on how many other Cenobites were working, or how many other practical effects were happening, [the makeup process] could be anywhere between like four and a half to six [hours]," she recalls. "But it was a blast working with [prosthetics FX artists Josh and Sierra Russell of Russell FX]. We would throw on music in the makeup trailer, and I'd have a beverage and we would gossip and chat. But once I stepped out of the makeup trailer, I was in the character for the rest of the shooting."

The prosthetics also helped her discover a key part of the Priest: her voice. Clayton brings a regal air to the character and imbues her voice with both a sensual curiosity and otherworldly chill. Her intonations hold a cold fascination that characterizes how the Priest regards her human subjects.

"I did a little bit of a thing in my audition tape, and then we played around with the volume specifically in the callback," Clayton says of crafting the Priest's memorable voice. "Then once I started going through the process, like the screen test and everything with the prosthetics, [the voice] took on a life of its own once the neck piece went on."

"Because once the neck piece went on, it was so tight, and I was so restricted," she explains. "It was like basically being choked the entire time."

This Hellraiser marks Barker's return to the films for the first time in more than two decades. After directing and writing the original film, the author penned the sequel's story and served as executive producer. He also received the latter credit for the next two films, though in a more limited role, and had no involvement in the subsequent six films. Here, he served as a creative producer.

"[Clive] would send me a lot of designs, he'd send me a lot of imagery, we would look at different passages of The Hellbound Heart," Bruckner says. "We had a lot of really wonderful, marvelous conversations just finding new avenues in the material. He always challenged us on the merits of this story and what it would become, but he's very, very generous with his time, both in prep and in post and where the cut was concerned, and it's a continued conversation."

"He never sought to push us back to what the original film was," the director continues. "He always understood that this has to grow, that it has to follow its own inspirations, and that that's the best way to respect the material."

The Cenobite designs represent one such change. In the original films, Pinhead and his comrades don fetishistic black leather, their fashion drawing inspiration from punk, S&M clubs, and religious garments. Their bodies appear scarred, butchered, and grotesquely modified.

In Bruckner's film, that visceral body horror and what Barker once deemed "repulsive glamour" gets reinterpreted to be more alien. These Cenobites exist fully nude and flay their skin to appear like clothing, accentuated by metal and wires. For instance, a brand-new Cenobite deemed the Masque (Vukašin Jovanovic) has his face suspended via a wire frame, and the back of his head removed. The Priest still has the iconic bejeweled pins embedded in a grid-like pattern on her head, but she now tailors her flesh to appear somewhere between bondage and a priest's robe. 

"Initially, we just felt you could push body augmentation further than we'd seen it before, and that the Cenobites shouldn't necessarily be tethered to an earthly subculture as far as the way that they can advance their pursuit of experience," Bruckner says of the new designs, which were primarily achieved through practical means, in tune with the original film. "Obviously, the old designs are very revered, but also we thought, you know, we had access to new advances in prosthetics, with a little bit of VFX augmentation."

Bruckner and lead concept designer Keith Thompson examined years worth of Hellraiser fan art when brainstorming the new designs. "Ultimately, we came around to the possibility that: What is black leather, if not a simulation of skin? In the way that it contours to the body and emphasizes certain aspects of the human form and the way that it feels," Bruckner explains. "Down this path, you could start to think of the Cenobites as that their own flesh was their own leather."

"You can get some of the same ideas in a way that feels very Hellraiser, but also does what I think Hellraiser always did — which is show you something that you've never seen before," he continues.