In this edition of The Silver Lining, we’ll be discussing Gary J. Tunnicliffe’s 2018 sequel, Hellraiser: Judgment.
Watching a bad movie doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad experience. Even the worst films can boast a good idea or two, and that’s why we’re trying to look on the bright side with The Silver Lining, where we shine a light on the best parts of traditionally maligned horror flicks.
Being a fan of the Hellraiser movies can be a bit of a roller-coaster ride. Sure, the first two are great and there are a couple of fun sequels further down the line, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen Pinhead and company in a truly memorable film. Some friends and I even used to joke about this, commenting that the poor quality of the sequels was actually part of a Cenobite conspiracy to generate more sweet suffering in the world.
While we now have a reason to hope for the best, as the rights to the franchise have reverted back to Clive Barker and we’re currently awaiting both a new feature film and a TV show, this wasn’t always the case. For the longest time, Dimension Films kept the franchise hostage, only greenlighting new movies when the rights to the property were close to expiring, and never investing more than the bare minimum.
The last time this happened was in 2018 when Dimension released Hellraiser: Judgment. While it was clearly just another attempt to maintain the IP, there was something different about this mandatory sequel. Director Gary J. Tunnicliffe was actually an experienced genre veteran, having developed special effects for previous Hellraiser films and even directing the semi-official Pinhead short No More Souls: One Last Slice of Sensation back in 2004.
Already a huge fan of the franchise, Gary proposed a gritty thriller following police detectives as they pursued a serial killer obsessed with the 10 commandments, with the investigators eventually stumbling into a nightmare of hellish proportions. Not only would these morally dubious characters encounter the iconic Cenobites, but they would also be joined by the Stygian Inquisition, another infernal sect that aims to judge and “reward” accomplished sinners.
Featuring a passionate director and the promise of a story that would add to the original mythology instead of merely rehashing it, it seemed like things were finally looking up for the bruised and battered Hellraiser franchise.
SO WHAT WENT WRONG?
Good intentions aren’t enough to save a movie, and Hellraiser: Judgment is proof of that. Despite Tunnicliffe’s best efforts, the lack of studio support ultimately doomed his ambitious passion project. While the film did technically recover its considerably reduced budget of $350,000 and garnered a 40% on Rotten Tomatoes (which isn’t that bad for a low-budget horror flick), it was all for naught. The finished film was barely marketed, and the studio’s lack of genuine interest was reflected in the film’s production value.
At its worst, the cheap digital photography makes the movie look like a mid-tier CW show, complete with scenes obviously shot on makeshift soundstages and interiors that don’t quite match with exteriors. While there was an effort to scout real spooky locations in and around Oklahoma City, a mere three weeks of production time meant that the team had to cut corners in order to meet their deadline.
The rushed pre-production also meant that Tunnicliffe’s script came out a little half-baked, playing around with genuinely interesting concepts without really diving into any of them. The story structure was also very reminiscent of the Saw sequels, with the film focusing on police procedural elements and often veering into “torture porn” territory. While the Heaven versus Hell element was a welcome addition to the lore, it kind of reminded me of the worst parts of Barker’s own conclusion to the Hellraiser canon in his Scarlet Gospels, which watered down a unique mythology with overused Christian iconography.
Judgment’s screenplay may have been just a draft or two away from being a legitimately thrilling Hellraiser sequel, but the lack of narrative polish meant that this precarious production was already built on a rocky foundation. That being said, Tunnicliffe has claimed that the original version of the story was meant to be a bit more nightmarish, maintaining the surreal atmosphere from the Inquisition scenes throughout the entire picture and playing around with misleading flashbacks. I can’t say how much that would have improved the overall experience, but it would certainly have been more dynamic.
Of course, the real leatherbound elephant in the room was the recasting of Pinhead, with Doug Bradley refusing to reprise the role after realizing that this was yet another Dimension Films cash-grab. No matter how good a newcomer’s performance might have been, fans would never warm up to a replacement in a direct sequel. When asked if he had any advice for his successor, Bradley even mocked the director’s praise of Paul T. Taylor’s take on the Lead Cenobite. Ouch.
THE SILVER LINING
Hellraiser: Judgment might not be the best sequel in the franchise, but if you take into account just how many wrenches were thrown into the cogs of this production and then look at the finished product, it’s a miracle that the movie turned out as entertaining as it did. The filmmakers tried their best to work with what they had, and despite a few inevitable flaws, the effort really shows.
Even Pinhead’s screen presence is miles ahead of the previous sequel, with Paul T. Taylor giving his all in a regal reinterpretation of the character. Even his costume was updated, now sporting references to Leviathan and Marvel’s Doctor Strange, of all things. There are other fun little easter-eggs as well, like a cameo from scream queen Heather Langenkamp and the creepy Assessor being played by Feast director John Gulager.
Personally, I think the best part of Judgment is its introduction of The Auditor, played by Tunnicliffe himself. This spectacled freak really steals the show with his oddly charming performance and creepy mannerisms, making for a truly worthy addition to the Hellraiser canon. The character’s design was actually repurposed from the director’s own re-imagining of Pinhead in Pascal Laugier’s unproduced reboot.
The auditing process itself features some of the most batshit crazy imagery in the entire series, presenting a form of torture so bizarre and convoluted that I almost wish it had been featured in another movie, separate from this once-dying franchise. Judgment also offers plenty of practical gore and monster makeup, though I wish the cinematography was a bit more polished so that these effects could shine through.
While I’m still on the fence regarding the film’s religious angle (which might appeal to fans of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn comics), I appreciate how the feud between the Stygian Inquisition and the Cenobites add to the lore of Barker’s incomprehensible hellscape. It’s just a shame that the limited budget didn’t allow Tunnicliffe to go crazy with these ideas, especially when he introduces angels into the mix.
Had the studio truly believed in the director’s vision, I’m fairly certain that Hellraiser: Judgment would be remembered as a surprisingly effective sequel. However, even in its present state, it’s remarkable that the film is as watchable as it is, and I’d recommend it to any hardcore Hellraiser fan who might have given up on the franchise after Bloodline.