Gehenna: Where Death Lives
A group visits Saipan to search for locations for their company's newest resort. As they find what they think is the perfect spot, they discover a hidden bunker on the property which they decide to explore. However, they soon find out that curiosity can kill. As each member faces their most private secrets and the secrets of the bunker itself, the results lead to a most shocking conclusion.
A real estate development company is planning a new 5-star resort on the remote tropical island of Saipan – a US Commonwealth in the Pacific Ocean. Several representatives arrive to tour a large tract of land, so they can make a determination as to whether this location will work for their development needs. Paulina (Eva Swan), her architect Tyler (Absentia and Oculus’ Justin Gordon) and their photographer David (Matthew Edward Hegstrom) are joined by Saipan local land-seller Alan (Simon Phillips) and his assistant Pepe (Sean Sprawling). The tour is going well, as beautiful beaches and stunning potential views are shown, but then they stumble upon an old WWII bunker set into the hillside. Paulina is no-nonsense and must report everything back to her boss Morgan (sci-fi/horror acting legend Lance Henriksen), so the group decides to explore and hopefully map out the many corridors and dark corners of the vast bunker. But, since the bunker was built on ancient burial grounds, things will quickly turn terrifying and dangerous as the group becomes trapped under the ground.
Those who have read my other reviews (hey there, avid readers of 2!) know that I totally dig ensemble casts, clashing personalities and powder-keg situations with practically no escape! Gehenna: Where Death Lives sets everything up nicely, but quickly dissolves into boring repetition.
The opening moments of the film are truly stunning – shot in Saipan to great effect. It properly sets up the beauty of the area where the company is choosing to construct their resort, and offers up a cautionary tale of our world’s current need to “domesticate” and develop every wild and untouched location across the globe. Writer/director Hiroshi Katagiri and his Director of Photography Yohei Tateishi do the locations glorious justice and frankly will make your mouth water – and inspire you to make a personal visit to this grand place.
However, once inside the bunker (and the obvious sets), there’s not much in the way of epic and inspired camerawork.
As far as that set design – I wasn’t totally impressed. While it was far more effective when the lights were dim, and any “seams” could be easily disguised – when the group wander the passages with the help of the many bulbs throughout, it never felt like it had enough depth. The sets look flat and inauthentic – and problems like that don’t help to sell the overall product.
I was mostly impressed with performances, particularly that of Eva Swan as our fearless leader Paulina. She hits all the right emotional moments when needed, but her genuine talents don’t quite work with the emotionally shallow story she’s meant to tell. You see, the bunker brings up everyone’s guilt of past sins (real or perceived) and it drives them insane. But we don’t get enough history from the characters. There’s a very brief prologue to the film, which gives Paulina some background, but it’s not enough. It’s tough to connect with any characters – even when they’re in painful and mortal danger – and although most of the actors are decent – there’s no connection, therefore no investment.
And with that, the biggie problem with Gehenna is the lack of urgency throughout. It never goes into overdrive, and I really was hoping it would. There was plenty of promise, but much like the constant wandering of the characters through the corridors of this WWII bunker, the story followed the same route. It didn’t build any suspense and it felt aimless. Folks, good structure and an organic build really matter.
Lance Henriksen and Doug Jones (the famous makeup actor who should be called the Lon Chaney of our time) have a scant few minutes of screen-time between them and you will certainly wish you could get a few extra moments with these two genre greats. But with their recognizable names in the genre, I can understand why the filmmakers wanted them — even if these minute roles sadly gave them very little to do.
There are plenty of flashbacks to support that these tunnels and where they were built – are cursed for the rest of time, but other than some different set dressing and costume changes – the flashbacks don’t quite work. Something in the way they were filmed, or perhaps some filters or after-effects in post could have made a marked difference, but as is – the lack of variety from the present to the past – doesn’t work.
The payoff wasn’t a total surprise, but I was impressed with how it wrapped up and the details presented early on which later come to a head in the film’s climax and reveal. I appreciated the ending.
Of interest, Hiroshi Katagiri is mainly known for his special effects work on films like Jurassic Park III and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (his resume is quite impressive). He’s written and directed a few shorts, but Gehenna is his feature film debut.
Gehenna: Where Death Lives is pretty by-the-numbers, touting some decent performances and beautifully realized outdoor/location footage, but it has no push, no urgency and moves the characters back and forth in the bunker with no motivation and a lack of excitement and sympathy.
The film is scheduled for release on Halloween 2016 and it’s still on the festival circuit. It received its Los Angeles premiere at the 16th annual Shriekfest earlier this month.