February is officially over and we’ve moved onto March, with spring just around the corner. And several new horror movies make their way to various streaming and VOD platforms this week. Amongst this crop of new releases. Hell is Empty promises to take audiences into a small cult of sister-wives under the spell of a self-proclaimed ‘Messiah’. From independent studio 1091 Pictures and director Jo Shaffer, Hell is Empty doesn’t have much in the way of advance buzz. But cults and their enigmatic leaders always seem to hold public attention.
When teenaged Lydia runs away from home, she quickly finds herself taken in by an enigmatic stranger, Ed. Living on a remote island in a dilapidated cabin, Ed lives with four other women and proclaims himself a ‘Messiah’. Like the other women, Lydia falls under the influence of the man the other women simply refer to as ‘Artist’. But increasingly strange occurrences threaten their idyllic lives.
Hell is Empty Has Moments of Style, But Cannot Maintain Suspense
Clearly, director Jo Shaffer was working with limited resources for Hell is Empty. To some extent, there’s potential and more than a few things here to appreciate. First and foremost, Shaffer exploits the movie’s isolated setting and rustic, run-down cabin to elicit some atmosphere. Despite the low budget, Shaffer also shows off some visual style capturing a handful of beautifully framed shots of the scenic backdrops. In addition, Hell is Empty boasts some clever religious imagery, most notably a dinner shot reminiscent of The Last Supper. Much of the movie relies on the threat of violence, which draws out a bit of suspense for the first half or so.
…Shaffer exploits the movie’s isolated setting and rustic, run-down cabin to elicit some atmosphere.
But Hell is Empty struggles to maintain much in the way of suspense or tension. Undoubtedly, audience familiarity with the subject matter doesn’t help. We know ‘Artist’ is a false prophet and that sooner or later the idyllic ‘family’ will self-combust. Shaffer doesn’t do anything to subvert these expectations. Moreover, Hell is Empty stretches over 90 minutes with too many scenes that drag. Conflicts in this thriller – including a rebellious follower and a stranded interloper – solve themselves before the tension they should elicit gets explored. A climax that betrays the thriller’s limited budget and an abrupt conclusion drain the rest of that early mood.
Hell is Empty Offers Little in the Way of Insight Into Its Cult
Befitting of its small budget, Hell is Empty doesn’t feature any recognizable names or faces. In fact, newcomers comprise the bulk of the small cast. Despite the inexperience most of the performances exceed expectations. As the main protagonist, Lydia, Spencer Peppet does just fine with a role that feels underwritten (more on that below). Aya’s ‘Murphy’ does enough to convince as a childlike mute. But it’s Nia Farrell who shines with what’s easily the most rounded, emotionally interesting role. Arguably, Travis Mitchell, playing the self-styled prophet ‘Ed’ (or Artist), underwhelms. Never does Mitchell exude the kind of charisma or ‘cult of personality’ that would entice others to blindly follow. He mostly vacillates between soft-spoken father-like figure and raging misogynist.
By the time the credits start rolling down the screen, you’ll feel like you barely know anyone in the movie.
Yet it’s not the performances themselves that are the problem. Instead, Shaffer and Adam Desantes’ screenplay underserves its characters. By the time the credits start rolling down the screen, you’ll feel like you barely know anyone in the movie. For instance, Hell is Empty gives us next to no background on Lydia and little motivation for her other than a desire to fit in. Yet it’s a rationale that does little to explain why she would so quickly embrace Ed’s teachings or why she later abruptly rebels. And Hell is Empty gives ‘Artist’ little to no philosophy making him a dull prophet. Most of his dialogue consists of repetitive ramblings about the Devil and evil.
Hell is Empty Never Fully Reaches Its Potential
Though it’s by no means a wasted effort, Hell is Empty falls short of expectations. Occasionally, Shaffer makes effective use of the movie’s isolated setting and premise to add a bit of tension. But scenes that should be filled with quiet dread often just feel like empty space. That is, with over 90 minutes of story put up on the screen, Hell is Empty doesn’t feel like it’s offering much outside of expectations for this sort of movie. An abrupt ending and some clumsy execution also feel like they hold this feature back from its potential. And there is potential – Shaffer sets up some impressive shots alongside decent performances. But potential isn’t enough to warrant a full recommendation.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: C+