Hollywood’s go-to man on visual effects joins forces with Hollywood’s go-to man on freaky makeup jobs. That in mind, Hiroshi Katagiri (Dragonball: Evolution 2009, The Hunger Games 2012) directs his first feature-length film, Gehenna: Where Death Lives, starring Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth 2006, The Shape of Water 2017) and Lance Henriksen (Aliens 1986, Pumpkinhead 1988), amongst others. Though unlike their big blockbusters, this film was made on a more modest, and estimated, $240,000 budget. It was made back in 2016, where it did the festival run until Uncork’d Entertainment picked up the distribution rights. So, everyone will have the chance to catch Gehenna: Where Death Lives in theaters or On Demand as of Friday, May 4, 2018 onwards. But what is it about?
Written by Katagiri himself, alongside Nathan Long (Kamen Rider series, Guyver: Dark Hero 1994) and Brad Palmer (Blood Redd 2017), it is about curiosity killing the cat. A group of people are sent to Saipan to find a location for their company’s new resort. When they think they have found the perfect spot, they come across a bunker made by the Japanese during World War 2. They decide to enter it and explore, but things soon take a turn for the worst when they learn it was not abandoned. There is much more inside it than they bargained for.
Well, it is called Gehenna after all. The film even starts with its dictionary definition, where it is essentially Hell (“A most accursed place. Destination for the wicked.”) It was that or the real place in Jerusalem that inspired the term, but it is Where Death Lives, not Where Aaron Lives. Visions of Hell make for an easier horror experience than visions of a Holy Land tourism video. Etymology aside, the big question here is whether the film is any good or not. The intro starts off spookily enough, detailing a backstory that goes beyond the Japanese occupation. The opening credits even have some nice if grim illustrations by Sakura Kikukawa. Though the quick cuts to live footage during it do come off as a little cheesy.
Also, despite that crack about tourism, the story is about the darker side of the industry. Big Western company goes to an exotic locale and talks about ripping it up to make way for a pricey resort for other rich Westerners. Saipan culture and folklore goes out the window in the name of profit (“I speak dollars and cents”.) It is not exactly the most original story, as there have been plenty of horrors based on properties built on top of ancient burial grounds, cursed earth, or the sites of horrific crimes. Suppose it is not often the horror strikes at the property developers before they even get to build their haunted houses for doomed tenants. Like an East Asian equivalent of a theoretical Poltergeist 0: You’re Building It Where?!?!?
The group consists of the business-minded Paulina (Eva Swan: The Beast 2009, Alien Inhabitants 2011), money-minded Alan (Simon Philips: Blue Collar Hooligan 2012, Once Upon A Time at Christmas 2017), advisor Tyler (Justin Gordon: Oculus 2013, Before I Wake 2016), naïve photographer Dave (Matthew Edward Hegstrom), and their local guide Pepe (Sean Sprawling: Wolf Mother 2016, Age of the Living Dead 2018). They run the gamut of ignorance from wilfully ignorant to unknowingly so as they stumble further into the depths. They come off as believable, if familiar, characters, and the actors perform them relatively well. Henriksen and Jones are fine too, though they amount more to cameos than full roles.
The film also looks really nice for the aforementioned estimated $240,000 budget. Either the estimate is wrong, or they stretched out what they had well. The cinematography won Yohei Tateishi (Moviestar* 2015) an award at the Chicago Indie Horror Film Festival in 2017, and it is hard to complain against it. It makes Saipan alluring enough to pull anyone in, and the bunker scary enough to drive them away. It helps get the most out of the scares too, alongside the makeup jobs by Spectral Motion (Hellboy 2004, Looper 2012) and Katagiri himself as the creature effects sculptor. He knows quite a bit on how to make a spooky sight, given his visual effects work. Though his direction also shows he knows how to build up tension along the way by building up to those scares.
That said, he is going by the textbook here. Experienced Horror fans will likely know which turns and scares will crop up based on the cinematic tricks used. The plot takes a Silent Hill-esque turn once things get serious in the bunker. However, the threats inside it are more Ringu-esque in comparison. It is not that they are not scary or creepy- they certainly fit the bill. They are just unlikely to keep one up at night unless this is their first foray into the genre.
That just about sums the whole film up really. It may get the skin crawling, but it is unlikely to leave people shivering. The direction is fine, as is the sound design and scares. There is some lovely camerawork on display, as well as some very effective makeup jobs and visual effects. The acting is fair too, if a little hammy in places.
Overall, it is a competent tale with some interesting twists and turns. It is not spellbinding, but it is not awful either, and should not hurt to try out. So for these reasons, CrypticRock gives Gehenna: Where Death Lives 3.5 out of 5 stars.