Hellraiser, a 2022 reimagining of Clive Barker’s seminal 1987 horror classic, reconfigures the story to follow a young woman named Riley (Odessa A’zion), whose struggles with substance abuse inadvertently bring her face-to-face with hell incarnate in the form of a sinister puzzle box. Directed by David Bruckner, known for another tragedy-tinged horror film, 2020’s The Night House, Hellraiser explores contemporary ideas using elements from the 35-year-old franchise — including the original’s Lemarchand’s box.
Even those with only a passing familiarity with the franchise will recognize the puzzle box, known as Lemarchand’s box or the “Lament Configuration” in the original Hellraiser. The prop is a horror icon itself on par with the pinheaded hell priest that it conjures into reality when solved. Originally designed by the late Simon Sayce, who worked as a special effects designer on Hellraiser and its 1988 sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, the box has remained more or less unchanged from its initial appearance across the franchise’s many installments.
For his own installment of Hellraiser, Bruckner enlisted the help of Martin Emborg, a game designer and concept artist at IO Interactive known for his work on the Hitman franchise and the 2017 sci-fi stealth-action horror game Echo. Emborg had to do what at the time seemed impossible: improve upon perfection.
“I was fully aware of what it meant when I was offered the opportunity,” Emborg told Polygon over Zoom. “The Lament Configuration is a horror icon. There’s not a lot of those, so it was pretty crazy redesigning preexisting stuff.” Emborg was approached early on before the film’s preproduction, just after it was announced that Bruckner was attached to direct a new Hellraiser. “I just got an email one day with the one-word title, ‘Hellraiser,’” Emborg told Polygon. “And I was like, what does that mean — Hellraiser?!”
It was only later, after having accepted the offer, that Emborg learned it was Keith Thompson, the lead concept artist for 2022’s Hellraiser, who referred him for the job. “He had played Echo, and when discussions about the design of the puzzle box came up during preproduction and David asked him who he had in mind, he was like, I have an idea. And then David thought it was a good idea, and then I thought it was a good idea. So then we made it happen!”
What sets the puzzle box seen in 2022’s Hellraiser apart from its first incarnation in the 1987 original is its ability to transform into several other forms. Bruckner has stated in interviews that each of the six configurations of the box seen through the film — Lament, Lore, Lauderant, Liminal, Lazarus, and Leviathan — represent a different aspect of the human experience, expanding on the seed of an idea planted as far back as the first film.
“We had lots of great conversations about how the configurations would transform into one another,” Emborg told Polygon. “We wanted them to be uncomplicated, because if you go too complicated it becomes less striking. It was all a question of, how do we take these abstract, archetypal ideas and make them geometrical?”
As a concept artist, Emborg drew from both his background as a game designer and his love of the Hellraiser franchise while designing the new puzzle box. “I was sort of intuitively building into the aesthetic [of the box], the promise of functionality and stuff like that,” Emborg told Polygon. “I actually really like the original box design because it’s so mysterious, you can’t see that there’s any mechanism at first. So one of the big decisions I made is that I really wanted the mechanism to be part of the ornamentation, and not just patterns and stuff.”
Emborg likens his early conversations with Bruckner and Thompson to role-playing sessions, with the three regularly convening over Zoom to eventually settle on what would become the unifying elements of the box in its many iterations. “The form language of the box emerged out of a combination of the motif of a labyrinth, a garden, and a circular mechanism. And then,” Emborg chuckles mischievously, “there are holes.”
The idea that the team ultimately settled on for how the film’s characters would interact with the box is that every iteration would have some form of hole in which the puzzle-solver would have to endanger themselves in order to activate. “It was like a void, you’re risking a part of your body by sending it in there,” Emborg told Polygon. “There’s something very sexual about the act of ‘penetrating’ the cube; it should feel natural but also deadly, almost like a finger guillotine.”
It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with 2017’s Echo, a game wherein a mysterious woman descends into the mazelike depths of an alien planet on a journey of redemption and self-discovery, that Emborg has an affinity for labyrinths. “Labyrinths are just really cool, and they’re a big part of the Hellraiser franchise,” Emborg told Polygon. “I love art deco, of course, too; Hellraiser has always sort of had design roots in art deco when it comes to the design of the box. So those elements are present in the design of the new box as well.” For the Lauderant configuration, the design which resembles two pyramids sunken into each other that represents “love,” Emborg cited the eponymous Incal from Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jean “Moebius” Giraud’s 1980 comic as an inspiration.
The design of the box became so integral to the production that, as Emborg iterated on different versions of the design, those ideas would then feed into the script throughout the process of rewrites. This is apparent in the villainous art collector Voight’s lair, a palatial mansion encased in an electrified wrought-iron cage whose inner walls are rife with secret passageways and traps reminiscent of the Lament Configuration. “The production designer took the designs for the boxes we created and kind of ran with them for the set design,” Emborg says. “I wasn’t directly involved, but by extension, yes — I had a hand in shaping the design of Voight’s house.”
All in all, Emborg speaks fondly of his experience working on Bruckner’s version of Hellraiser, likening the process to that of true collaborators brought together by a shared vision and a respect for Clive Barker’s original work. “It was just the best kind of fun when you can create together, and especially when the process was so liberated,” Emborg told Polygon. “We were completely free to design it, and it was so cool that it could feed back into the script.”
Like the many-layered pieces of the puzzle box itself, everything just came together.