Review by Bryan Yentz
Starring Lance Henriksen, Doug Jones and Eva Swan
Directed by Hiroshi Katagiri
Written by Hiroshi Katagiri, Nathan Long and Brad Palmer
Long ago, before it was turned into a horrifically cruel place of punishment, “hell” was actually a real place, right here on Earth. Known as Gehenna (a Greek word which means “The Valley of the Son of Hinnom”), this location was just outside the bounds of Jerusalem and served as a place of cremation, garbage and – frighteningly enough – child sacrifice. While many have come to believe that hell is a place of eternal torment on the other side of the great divide, the original purpose of Jesus’ words in this respect was a portentous metaphor made in reference to an actual locale of the times. Of course, over time (and ensuing fear tactics) Gehenna became what we all know (and fear) as a synonym for hell; that potential fiery doom that lies in the incorporeal dark.
Now that that’s outta the way, the film GEHENNA: WHERE DEATH LIVES (oxymoron, much?) follows the fantastical concept of Gehenna to create a derivative horror-thriller akin to AS ABOVE, SO BELOW. The first thing that’s going to get any horror aficionado’s attention is the inclusion of both Lance Henriksen and creature-actor extraordinaire Doug Jones. Unfortunately, as seems to be the marketing tradition of late, if you’ve got a middling horror flick that needs attention, just cameo that shit and advertise it like the actors are actually in the film!
In a role/moment that feels as unnecessary as it is desperate, GEHENNA opens with an incredibly brief phone call between our heroine Paulina (Eva Swan) and her employer Morgan (Henriksen). After about one minute of exposition, we never see or hear from Lance ever again. This scene could have been scrapped entirely; the “part” seems to have been scripted so that the venerable actor could literally phone it in from the comfort of his own home.
Following this, Doug Jones enters as “Creepy Old Man” (yes, you read that correctly), an emaciated figure that’s in the movie for all of five minutes — maybe. Not only does the role lack Jones’ signature physical embellishments/movements, but the dummy they use to stumble toward the camera during one shot looks like a grip may be wiggling the legs to jostle the body around. Not only is it not scary but it feels like a disservice to the man who’s brought cinematic life to such monsters as the Pale Man, Abe Sapien and the Amphibian Man.
So, with the two most worthwhile names taking a back seat, GEHENNA is forced to rely on relative unknowns and the promise of hellacious imagery to elevate its status as a worthwhile indie flick. Unfortunately, what ensues for 1.75 hours is a monotonous trek through drab set design and what boils down to a retread of dozens of other films, not to mention most notably (again) AS ABOVE, SO BELOW.
Set in Saipan, a small group of people seek out locations for a potential resort, but soon run afoul of evil entities when they uncover a seemingly abandoned bunker from WW2. Stuck inside its dusty hallways, each are confronted with ghostly visions while being forced to confront past sins.
It’s almost impossible not to keep mentioning AS ABOVE, SO BELOW because GEHENNA takes such large strides to be just like it… minus the ambition or worthwhile visuals. And where the former decided to give visual flair/set-pieces to each of its character’s dilemmas, the “sins” herein are as forgettable as they come and the accompanying “creepy” visuals for each victim’s lament is both stereotypical (long-haired J-horror girl) and repetitive (constant cutaways when a sinister being attacks).
Following that template, GEHENNA’s subjects discover a deeply rooted history in the catacombs, and discover that it is a hellish gateway (if the title didn’t already give it away) that also affects time. . . *Cough* AS ABOVE *Cough*. . .GEHENNA sticks so closely to its obvious source of inspiration that it gradually loses what little identity it has the longer it goes on. And it definitely goes on too long.
There’s a difference between imitation and emulation, but director Hiroshi Katagiri as well as fellow writers Nathan Long and Brad Palmer have offered nothing new to what’s been established, beyond a semi-interesting backstory regarding the Japanese troops that once dwelled in the evil bunker. Then again, it’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel, but at the very least, add a new coat of bloody paint.
For a storyline about afterlife’s inferno, you’d expect to see disturbing imagery, monstrous beings and a frighteningly palpable atmosphere. What GEHENNA delivers is the same two or three hallways and one or two office rooms painted to look decrepit. There’s no personality to the setting, the boring archetypes or the actions any of them take. It’s all a visually repetitive one-trick pony that has characters occasionally see a moaning ghost before each begins to flip out on the other from paranoia. The only moment of the whole shebang that had me illicit a curved brow was that of a single gruesome practical effect involving a shovel. GEHENNA had the darkest conceptions at its disposal, and out of all of that, a shovel-to-the-face is the most memorable thing. Sheesh. This is all the more disappointing considering Katagiri’s background is in professional creature FX; a fact you wouldn’t know by the rather poorly devised ghouls that also happen to be cloaked in shadow most of the time.
By the time GEHENNA finally got to its blatant “twist” ending (which was also pried from the cold, dead hands of other fright flicks) I was left perturbed at just how dull the entire endeavor was — especially considering how ripe for potential this subject matter could have been. AS ABOVE, SO BELOW was far from being a great movie, but it at least understood what it needed to do in order to be entertaining for one hour and thirty minutes. GEHENNA: WHERE DEATH LIVES squanders the names of Henriksen and Jones for the sake of marketing and doesn’t even make good on its director’s panache for special effects. Bunker-relegated movies like OUTPOST and THE DIVIDE found a way of making an enclosed space not only fresh, but terrifying. GEHENNA: WHERE DEATH LIVES on the other hand, just found a way to Kickstart a lesser version of the celluloid that preceded it.
I’d sooner take an expedition to the real land of cremation than watch this again.