Promotional materials matter. For proof look no further than the posters for Gehenna: Where Death Lives. Its promotional posters call to mind some of the worst Grade-Z horror movies you can imagine. But the Chicago Indie Horror Film Festival gave Gehenna some love. So do we have a hidden gem on our hands? Or does Gehenna’s marketing material tip its hand?
American businesswoman Paulina arrives on the island of Saipan 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. Spanish settlers once subjected the locals to horrific ordeals. Years later, during WWII, Japanese soldiers occupied Saipan.
During their tour, Paulina and company discover an old underground Japanese WWII bunker. Old inscriptions on the walls describe a curse. Along with the remains of Japanese soldiers, a ghoulish, skeletal man, still alive, warn the group to leave. But before anyone can leave, an earthquake shakes the bunker and and everyone blacks out. When Paulina and her crew awaken, the find all the bodies gone and their only exit locked. Visions of past misdeeds being haunting each member, threatening to trap them underground forever.
Gehenna Takes A ‘Kitchen Sink’ Approach
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 much of Gehenna will remind you of better movies. Neil Marshall made the most 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 never fully exploits its setting.
Gehenna Becomes Tedious Viewing
In spite of its promising premise, Gehenna turned out to be somewhat of a a chore to sit through. The pacing felt 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 atmosphere and a ratcheting up of tension. Yet director Hiroshi Katagiri never capitalizes on his claustrophobic setting. No sense of urgency is ever established.
Yet director Hiroshi Katagiri never capitalizes on his claustrophobic setting. No sense of urgency is ever established.
Even once the supernatural finally comes into play, things still never feel like they’re picking up. Traditional horror elements appear intermittently, but these bits are disrupted with expository dialogue and scenes that drag too long. Occasionally, there are a few jump scares but none are particularly effective. Even the 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 don’t be fooled. 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. Everyone is competent – no one elevates the movie, but no one drags it down either. . To be honest, there probably wasn’t much any of the actors could have done with their roles. All of the characters are pretty paper-thin. 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