Promotional materials matter. For proof look no further than the posters for Gehenna: Where Death Lives. The film poster available on Apple Movies calls to mind some of the worst Grade-Z horror films you can imagine. Personally, I’ve skipped over Gehenna several times while looking for something to watch because of its cover image. After seeing that this film received some recognition at the Chicago Indie Horror Film Festival, I thought it might be worth checking out. The brief synopsis on Apple Movies certainly sounded enticing.
“Gehenna” – the “most accursed place” and “destination of the wicked”. Or so we’re told in the film’s opening moments. From this little tidbit, we’re quickly introduced to the island of Saipan where a Spanish colonist is sacrificed, his face peeled off, by Indigenous natives. Years later, in the present day, American businesswoman Paulina arrives on the same island to negotiate a land deal for resort development. She’s joined by Tyler, an architect and unrequited love interest, naive videographer Dave, and slimy real estate agent Alan and his assistant, Pepe. The Indigenous locals consider the land sacred and cursed. Its history apparently seeped in colonial violence from the Spanish settlers to Japanese soldiers stationed there during WWII.
While touring the potential resort location, Paulina and company discover an old Japanese WWII bunker hidden underground. As they explore the bunker, they find old inscriptions – warnings of a curse – on the walls along with the remains of Japanese soldiers. They also stumble upon a ghoulish, skeletal man, still alive, who warns them to leave before dying. Unfortunately, some kind of earthquake occurs and the group blacks out, waking up after an unspecified amount of time to find all the bodies gone and the exit locked. Soon each member begins seeing haunting visions from past misdeeds that threaten to trap them underground forever.
A ‘Kitchen Sink’ Approach to Storytelling
Are you still with me? Honestly, I think that was the most difficult synopsis I have had to write yet for a film. In fact, its increasingly convoluted plot may be one of the film’s biggest shortcomings. Gehenna takes a great premise and burdens it with a ‘kitchen-sink’ approach to storytelling. Everything from curses to possible time- or inter-dimensional travel is thrown at the audience. Its a mishmash of ideas thrown together, none of which ever coalesces into coherent or engaging storytelling.
Gehenna takes a great premise and burdens it with a ‘kitchen-sink’ approach to storytelling.
It doesn’t help that many elements in Gehenna will remind viewers of much better movies. Neil Marshall showed how to make the most out of confined spaces with his brilliant film, The Descent. Even the decidedly average As Above, So Below injected the concept of people trapped below and haunted by past sins with more scares and tension.
Gehenna Becomes Tedious Viewing
In spite of its promising premise, Gehenna is a chore to sit through with pacing that feels almost lackadaisical. Those first 40 to 45 minutes feel seriously padded as not much of consequence happens. A slow-burn approach only works if there is an accompanying atmosphere and a ratcheting up of tension. Yet director Hiroshi Katagiri fails to really capitalize on his claustrophobic setting or develop any kind of momentum.
Even once the supernatural elements finally come into play things still never feel like they’re picking up. Horror elements appear intermittently but these bits are sadly disrupted with more expository dialogue and scenes that drag on far too long. Occasionally, there are a few jump scares but none are particularly effective. Even the film’s climax, which feels like it should be ‘important’, just comes across as needlessly stretched out. Gehenna is an hour and 45 minute movie that would have benefited from some serious cutting.
Competent Performances Undermined by Paper-Thin Characters
Genre favourites Doug Jones and Lance Henriksen have top-billing, but this is extremely misleading. Henriksen literally phones in a pointless ‘blink and you’ll miss it” performance, and Jones only appears for a few minutes, albeit under heavy makeup.
The rest of the principal cast is compromised of mostly unknown actors, all of whom turn in competent performances that neither elevate or hurt Gehenna. To be honest, there probably wasn’t much any of the actors could have done with their roles. The characters are pretty paper-thin with none registering as more than what probably amounted to 2-3 sentence long overviews in the screenplay. Simon Phillip’s slimy real estate agent, Alan, is slimy because everything he says or does serves to remind the audience of this one-dimensional trait. Poor Sean Sprawling is regulated to playing out stereotypes as Alan’s assistant, Pepe. None of the characters are likely to elicit any sympathy.
Impressive Make-up and Creature Effects
About the only noteworthy aspect of Gehenna are the make-up and creature effects. Before making his directorial debut with Gehenna, Katagiri was a special effects and make-up artist. His resume is impressive, including credits for Looper, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Blade, and Pacific Rim. Not surprisingly then, the make-up effects for Gehenna’s ghostly visions are top-notch and absolutely convincing. Most low-budget horror films benefit from keeping their monsters in the shadows for most of the film. In Gehenna’s case, the movie would have benefited from putting its monsters front and center.
Too Stupid For Serious Horror Fans, Not Stupid Enough for Bad Movie Cinephiles
Gehenna: Where Death Lives was a difficult film to review. It’s not an utterly terrible film with no redeeming qualities. On the one hand, it is probably too stupid and dull for serious horror fans looking for quality scares. Conversely, Gehenna doesn’t plunge to the depths of awfulness enough to appeal to those cinephiles who love a good ‘bad’ horror movie. There’s also a completely pointless end–of-credits scene that promises – or more aptly – threatens a sequel. That would truly be a cursed place.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: C