31 Days to Scare ~ Hellraiser (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young woman struggling with addiction comes into possession of an ancient puzzle box, unaware that its purpose is to summon the Cenobites.
Stars: Odessa A’zion, Jamie Clayton, Brandon Flynn, Goran Višnjić, Drew Starkey, Adam Faison, Aoife Hinds, Selina Lo, Hiam Abbass
Director: David Bruckner
Rated: R
Running Length: 121 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  I faced a slight dilemma as the release date of Hulu’s remake of Hellraiser drew near. It had been some time (think decades) since I had seen director Clive Barker’s 1987 adaptation of his novel, ‘The Hellbound Heart’. As someone who likes to do their brush-up homework and do it well, did I want to revisit this cult favorite, which spawned an enduring horror icon in its freaky breakout character Pinhead and a legion of sequels? I couldn’t even begin to attempt to climb that mountain of sequels (nine of them!), and in the end, I decided to take the same approach as the filmmakers by resisting the urge to look back too much.

Fuzzy memories or not, I do know that Barker’s original film has rightfully earned its place in the horror classic canon. With eye-popping special effects and creative make-up that turn actors into walking nightmares, the movie tends to stick with you and leave a mark. The same is true for David Bruckner’s take on Barker’s novel, which, contrary to advance rumor, is vastly different from the source material from which the original movie was drawn. Instead, a new story from David S. Goyer (Man of Steel) along with Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (Brucker’s collaborators in 2021’s The Night House) is presented, helping further to establish the 2022 film as its own entity.

A prologue introduces us to a sought-after puzzle box that mysterious billionaire Roland Voight (Goran Višnjić, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is willing to do anything and sacrifice anyone, to solve. It’s clear early on the box has its agenda with deadly rules, but the game plan is doled out slowly over the next two hours. Jumping ahead six years after we witness a gruesome demise courtesy of the creatures the box calls forth, the focus shifts to Riley (Odessa A’zion), an addict trying to stay clean despite temptations all around her.

Living with her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn) and his partner (Adam Faison) in the apartment they share with Nora (Aoife Hinds, The Commuter) makes for tight quarters, and the hot-wired Riley is feeling the pressure. Exploring a new relationship with Trevor (Drew Starkey, Love, Simon), another addict in recovery, is helping her find focus, but Matt is worried she’s playing with fire. His suspicions might not be too far off after Trevor floats the possibility of Riley earning quick money helping him break into an abandoned storage container at work. Long story short…they do, and guess what? The only item that’s waiting for them is the box.

Once in Riley’s possession, the box begins a terrifying cycle of configurations, each needing a sacrifice to move forward. Unable to find answers or help from the authorities, Riley and her friends must follow the history of the box, tracing its origin back to the last owner to find out what became of him. Staying several steps ahead of creatures from another world, including The Priest (Jamie Clayton, The Snowman), proves difficult as Riley finds herself marked for death and faced with decisions impacting the people she loves most, trusting her to make the right choice. 

An incredibly satisfying watch from beginning to end, I’m shocked the 2022 Hellraiser wasn’t released to theaters because the quality is much higher than your standard streaming-only release. The film’s production values (made in Belgrade, Serbia) are top-notch. From the costume design, which incorporates skin from the wearer into the garment, to the special effects make-up, the creativity was unbridled here. At the same time, it’s not over-the-top to betray the mood or Barker’s original tale. The first film tended to go a little wild, which fit the tone set by its director, but here Brucker keeps the movie as dark as can be.

That darkness gives Bruckner’s remake a sinister menace that is often genuinely frightening. It’s a gory movie but not gratuitous in its bloodletting. What’s there is enough to make you wince in pain, though. Thankfully, Bruckner is a sophisticated enough director not to wallow in that misery for too long. The point of The Priest and disciples is to revel in pain, and Clayton works well on the attack or at rest. Speaking of Clayton, it can’t have been easy to take over for a character as familiar as Doug Bradley’s instantly recognizable Pinhead (the name Pinhead is never mentioned here). Still, Clayton makes the character their own by letting the performance be cumulative of acting and make-up.

The rest of the cast is also strong, finding A’zion as an encouraging lead despite the character’s often insufferable urge toward self-destruction. I wasn’t familiar with A’zion before recently. This week alone, she’s the star of this and another horror film based on a familiar story, the Lizzie Borden possession thriller, The Inhabitant. She’s good in both, but, given a choice, stick with Hellraiser for the more polished production. Flynn, Faison, Starkey, and Hinds are pleasant victims, I mean, friends of A’zion’s character and Višnjić might be going for a modified Javier Bardem performance in terms of zeal, but it works for this character.

Fans of the series waiting for years for the next installment (the last was 2018) will hopefully be pleased with this remake. Barker is listed as a producer, and while Bradley couldn’t make his requested cameo, he has signed off his approval of Clayton’s version of a role to which he’s forever linked. Could this be the start of another string of Hellraiser trips should the movie succeed as well as Hulu hopes? After the success of the Predator prequel Prey earlier this summer, I think Hulu will have another sizable hit with Hellraiser, and we can expect more nightmare creations sooner rather than later. We can only hope that future sequels are handled with as much creative comprehension as this was.

Movie Review ~ Mr. Harrigan’s Phone

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Mr. Harrigan sadly passes away, Craig discovers that not everything is dead and gone and strangely finds himself able to communicate with his friend from the grave.
Stars: Donald Sutherland, Jaeden Martell, Joe Tippett, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Cyrus Arnold, Colin O’Brien, Thomas Francis Murphy, Peggy J. Scott
Director: John Lee Hancock
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Enough Stephen King has been discussed on this site over the years that readers should be aware of how much I admire the author and save much of my guilty pleasure watches for his lesser-liked films.  (I’m looking at you, The Lawnmower Man and Graveyard Shift…)  I’ll always go to bat for King being one of the best storytellers out there, but with such a focus on getting inside the inner workings of his characters, I can see how his novels might not easily make the transition to the big (or small) screens.  It takes a particular hand to adapt the work, and, as we’ve seen from the flops, it helps to have King’s support as you do it.

When you hear the name Stephen King alongside Blumhouse Productions and Ryan Murphy, a particular kind of “Stephen King movie” starts to develop in your mind.  I can’t say that I blame Netflix for leaning into that in their marketing of Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, writer/director John Lee Hancock’s film based on the novella from the 2020 short story collection ‘If It Bleeds’.  The poster and the preview give more than a slight hint the film packs in the thrills and has the kind of shivers expected of an October release.  While admittedly, the movie does have its moments, it emerges as something far more elegant than just your average horror movie about a boy’s supernatural connection to his elderly dead friend. 

Losing his mother at an early age, Craig (Jaeden Martell, Knives Out) has grown up with his single dad (Joe Tippett), doing his best to handle the duties of both parents.  From an early age, he even reads aloud from the pulpit in church, Craig catches the eye of Mr. Harrigan (Donald Sutherland, Backdraft), who requests his services three times a week, where he’ll pay him $5 to read to him from various works of classic literature.  This arrangement continues for years, with Craig showing up dutifully.  Over time, he gets life advice and becomes friendly with the man that prefers to stay isolated in his vast mansion and tend to his greenhouse flowers. 

Craig begins high school in 2003, and that’s when problems start.  A bully (Cyrus Arnold, 8-Bit Christmas, who by now has built a cottage industry playing them) targets him and creates trouble wherever Craig goes.  A kind teacher (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Silent Night) notices the conflict, but Craig is too worried about repercussions to make an official report.  All the cool kids, including a girl Craig is interested in, have the hot new tech at the time (the iPhone), and once Craig gets his, he’s in the sacred circle. 

It doesn’t protect him from his bully, though, or the onslaught of time.  Shortly after giving Mr. Harrigan an iPhone of his own, Craig’s reading companion dies suddenly, and in a symbolic gesture, Craig makes sure he is buried with it.  Not wanting to vent to his dad about the continuing school problems in case he pressures him to speak with school officials, Craig instead uses Mr. Harrigan’s still available voicemail to tell him about his problems.  Then he receives a response back… 

Without opening the gate on spoilers, it’s best to let you discover what happens next because a surprising amount of time is left in Mr. Harrigan’s Phone.  And it’s not all that you might think.  Leaning more toward the Dolores Claiborne end of the King canon for thrills and less of the Carrie vibe, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone affords the viewer enough time to get to know the characters and see them as real people.  It helps us then understand their motivations when facing decisions and pivot points later on.  Hancock (The Little Things) directs with a gentle hand, stepping back so a veteran actor like Sutherland can share scenes with the sensitive actor Martell demonstrably is and make something out of it.

Viewers going in expecting an all-out horror film or one that builds to a shattering climax with chains rattling and windows clanging will be disappointed with Mr. Harrigan’s Phone.  However, if you know you’re in for a well-told tale, you can overlook a few of the film’s plot holes (battery life, who is paying the phone bill?) and settle back for one of the best Stephen King adaptations I’ve seen in years.