★★★ out of ★★★★★
Maybe consider it Death’s first apartment.
Hiroshi Katagiri is no stranger to the movie making biz. Far from it, in fact. He moved from Japan to the US at the tender age of 18 with his eye on special effects. Not only did he break into the movie magic industry, he mastered it. He’s worked with Rob Bottin Studio, been the key artist at Stan Winston Studio, and left his mark on innumerable movies since the mid-90s. Well, okay, it’s numerable. There were 42. I numered it. Are you happy now? The point is, he’s a fan of all things creepy, spooky, and frightening and Gehenna: Where Death Lives is his first shot at his own full-length scarefest.
Written by Katagiri and Nathan Long and directed by Katagiri, Gehenna: Where Death Lives tells the tale of an advance team working for a vacation resort company who’ve come to Saipan hoping to find the ideal spot for their next swanky property. Paulina (Eva Swan) leads the team with Tyler (Justin Gordon; Before I Wake (2016), British TV’s Age of the Living Dead (2018), etc.) as her architect and Dave (Matthew Edward Hegstrom) as the cameraman responsible for recording their findings. They’re being lead around by Alan (Simon Phillips; Strippers vs Werewolves (2012), British TV’s Age of the Living Dead (2018), etc.) who hopes to broker the very lucrative land deal and Alan’s assistant, Pepe (Sean Sprawling; Wolf Mother (2016), British TV’s Age of the Living Dead (2018), etc.), who just hopes to get paid.
In the course of scouting the area, they hear the usual rumors about it being an ancient burial ground (isn’t everything?) and come across an old bunker. Abandoned by the Japanese at the end of World War II, the bunker turns out to be a prime location for an old man to hang around and chase off passers-by. “Seriously, guys,” he says. “Don’t go in there.” He might say it a little differently, but that’s the gist. So, everyone turns around and goes home. The rest of the movie is a documentary about the evils of developing the beaches of Saipan…
Oh, come on! Since when did anyone in a horror movie listen to warnings about going down into a spooky dark hole? Exactly. So, with a collective rolling of the eyes at the old man’s advice, the team heads down into the bunker.
Gehenna: Where Death Lives was made for less than $250k (via Kickstarter). Quite a bit more than some of the movies I’ve seen recently but, in the grand scheme of all things cinematic, that’s not much. Once the group enters the bunker, you start to see how Katagiri saved money on sets. Granted, it’s a bunker. Bunkers aren’t known for their aesthetic brilliance, but it does tend to add a bit of “bland” to the proceedings.
Happily, it’s not too long before we get a fun appearance by Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), The Shape of Water (2017), etc.) as the Creepy Old Man. Unrecognizable as ever, Mr. Jones doesn’t have a huge part in the movie (though it’s bigger than Lance Henriksen’s — he’s on screen for all of 10 seconds), but it’s always nice to see him. After getting spooked by Jones, seeing a bunch of old human remains, and experiencing an earthquake, everyone’s had their fill of bunker exploration.
But, wouldn’t ya know it… they’re trapped. What follows are a series of revelations, discoveries, murderous personal regrets, historical atrocities, one-dimensional characters, and lots and lots of what’s probably the same six-foot stretch of hallway.
To be perfectly honest, if you’re not a special effects junkie, Gehenna: Where Death Lives probably scores lower than what I’ve given it. The pacing is off, which makes the movie drag. The acting isn’t what you’d call Oscar-worthy — especially Matthew Edward Hegstrom’s — but hey! It’s his first anything. Give the kid a break! And the premise could have been presented a bit more clearly. However, I’m cutting this movie some slack due to potential. Call me an (not-so-)old softy, but give me great practical effects (I mean, how could they not be with Katagiri at the helm?), a fun if mildly clichéd story, and interesting cameos and I’ll root for a brand new writer/director every time.
I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next offering by Katagiri-san. After all, if his work as a special effects artist says anything, it’s that he’s willing to take the time to learn and get things right. Here’s hoping that same level of insight and persistance carries over to his writing & directing.
Alright, Hiroshi, let’s see what you’ve got.