Acclaimed special effects artist and creature-creator Hiroshi Katagiri has a CV that most people would die for. In fact, his credits include major Hollywood hits like Cabin in the Woods, Escape from L.A., and Jurassic Park III. Now, he’s tackling both writing and directing with his debut indie-horror film Gehenna: Where Death Lives, which is about to be released on May 4, 2018.
With a budget of just $400,000, raised mostly on Kickstarter, Katagiri has delivered a fantastically frightening (not to mention award-winning) film with a delicious surprise ending and some freaky real life folklore to boot.
Lying just south of Japan in the Pacific ocean, the Japanese used the island of Saipan as a military base during World War II. Unfortunately for the soldiers stationed in one bunker, a much older evil lay walled up in the dark recesses below.
Fast forward 70 years and a group of land developers (Paulina, Tyler, Dave, Alan, and Pepe) visit the island with an eye to build a new five-star resort along Saipan’s lush and beautiful coastline. As they explore, they come across an old blind-man wearing a mask and performing some sort of ritual. After chasing him off, they decide to take a look inside the bunker.
And this, my friends, is where the fun begins.
Seriously, I watch a lot of horror films—at least one a day if I’m not writing or working on something else. It’s pretty much my favorite genre when it comes to, well, anything but especially movies. I don’t care if it’s a B flick or not, I still find them entertaining in some aspect. So, I feel like I can safely say that I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to this topic. I felt that Gehenna most definitely deserves a spot in the good category, at least for originality if not anything else (and believe me, it delivers on everything else, too).
There has been a distinct lack of originality in horror films of late. For the last few years, it has seems like everyone just jumped on the Paranormal Activity wagon train or, more recently, The Conjuring—seriously, have you seen how many haunted evil doll movies there seem to be now? And there’s also plethora of found footage films out there. Don’t get me wrong—while I know it’s an unpopular opinion, I still love me some found footage. There’s only so much one can take of the “five kids disappear and all we found was their camera,” however.
Now, dolls do play a part in the story but they are not the agent that drives the scare. They’re a folkloric symbol of love and pain more than anything else. Instead, Gehenna provides a refreshing change from the usual horror fare with its focus on creating a sense of the horrific through a mix of grim atmospheric setting, folklore, history, and the characters’ own choices.
The enemy in the film may be somewhat supernatural but not in the way you’d expect. In fact, the supernatural aspect in Gehenna is more insidious than it is overt. It plays a subtle role in the story, influencing the characters but not in any obvious way, affecting their mental states and way of thinking. And that made it awesome because the true horror came from the characters’ actions and choices and the consequences thereof, not from an external source.
Oh and the ending? It’s a twist that would do M. Night Shyamalan proud.
Acting & Characters
I was excited to see Lance Henriksen on the cast. I was disappointed that he wasn’t on screen more than a few minutes but it was still cool. I mean, the guy’s a legend in my book. For the rest of the cast, the casting crew did a great job at selecting actors that fit the role—at least from a physical standpoint. I’m not saying the cast weren’t good—the actors all have decent credits to their names. It’s just that the acting could have been a little better. Their delivery of a few of the lines was a little stiff in places. And I have to admit that some of the dialogue was just a little awkward as written.
I also felt like the characters weren’t as developed as I’d have liked to see. Alan, for example, played by Simon Phillips, was a bit of a stereotype. Now, he’s playing a ruthless land developer who’s out to make a buck at any cost but that in and of itself is a stereotype—and it seems to be the only dimension to Alan’s personality. There is literally nothing redeeming about the man. He bullies his Chamorro assistant Pepe and with the exception of the first five minutes that he’s on screen, he screams and yells and acts like a complete belligerent jackass throughout the entire movie.
Theme & Symbolism
On that note, let’s talk about theme for a minute because it could be argued this Phillips’ performance as Alan relates back to theme. Given the ending, Katagiri may well have meant for him to embody the destructive force that colonialism and forced conversion through missionary expeditions have on native populations. In fact, each character could be representative of a different type of theme:
- Pepe: The anger and indignation of native populations who’ve been mistreated, oppressed, and robbed of their culture
- DDave: Not just a cute red-head but also the naïve tourist who soaks up native traditions without really understanding or appreciating its true importance
- Paulina and Tyler: The influence of globalization (negative and positive) on native cultures
In addition to the above, the most prominent theme throughout this movie in my opinion was that of “the enemy within” with a secondary theme being “those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”
These are just a few possibilities in regards to the theme and symbolism in Gehenna. Seriously, when you watch the film, take a look for yourself and see what you come up with. I’m a firm believer that, no matter what a creator intends, it’s the audience that really decides what a work means.
Gehenna was very well-filmed. The camera movements were smooth and each shot framed quite well. The filters and lighting used throughout the film gave the environment a very dark, dingy finish. This contributed to the eerie and unsettling ambience of the film, increasing the sense of anxiety and panic that being trapped underground with no way out would naturally induce.
The soundtrack in Gehenna was very much understated but not to its detriment. It struck a nice balance that I think a lot of films fail to achieve. At no point was it too loud or too soft, always at a the perfect level when it was present. The rise and fall in volume fully supported both the action and the mood of the film.