Gehenna: Where Death Lives is a horror adventure film from writer-director, Hiroshi Katagiri featuring appearances by genre veterans Lance Henriksen and Doug Jones in a time-bending story that will freak you out and teach you more about the frightening history of Saipan than you ever wanted to know.
Speaking of which, what exactly do you know about the nation of Saipan? No, not Saigon. Not Japan either. Saipan. Yeah, I hadn’t heard of it myself until this film crossed my path. But in many ways sounding like a made-up country (it might as well be placed between Shadaloo and Genosha) makes this island commonwealth of the United States the perfect setting for a supernatural mystery. The less you know, the more you can buy into the creepy mythology revealed throughout.
For the curious, Gehenna is apparently an old biblical reference to a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem where the locals dumped their trash into endlessly burning fires and Jesus used it as an example of everlasting destruction. So Gehenna is not a pretty picture, but what does it have to do with this film’s plot? Let’s find out.
When upwardly mobile young executive, Paulina rounds up a crew in Saipan to help her evaluate a potential site for her company’s new resort property, the group is accidentally trapped in a Japanese World War 2 bunker and subjected to supernatural horrors by ghosts of the past. Or could this Hell on Earth really be happening?
Now if you’re wondering what kind of gruesome sights are to be had in Gehenna: Where Death Lives allow me to inform you that in the opening moments a man’s face is cut from his head in a nasty revenge ritual perpetrated by loincloth clad natives. Yeah, this film wastes no time in making you cringe. But it’s not all face-ripping gore, soon we are enjoying the idyllic oceanside scenery of Saipan and meeting our doomed group of explorers.
Eva Swan as the Paulina is the lone female in the cast, yet plays puppet master to her male counterparts by holding the purse strings as well as their heart strings, though past tragedy prevents her from acting on these romantic leanings. More on that later. Swan’s performance makes it very clear that Paulina is a type-A personality with no time to waste on sentimentality and she basically says as much in a phone conversation with Lance Henriksen during his blink and you’ll miss it cameo.
Tyler as portrayed by Justin Gordon is laid-back and instantly likable. Not only does he speak Japanese, but he’s a nice guy to boot and is obviously interested in Paulina. Apparently hired on as the construction consultant, tyler finds himself playing the voice of reason as the action heats up. But before terror strikes he’s already at odds with a less amiable member of the team.
Simon Phillips as the alpha male opportunist, Alan, hints at a past relationship with Paulina while telling the crew not to worry about the Saipan natives protesting the development of the site he has scouted for the resort oasis. Full of bravado and seeing dollar signs, Alan fancies himself as the leader and for at least one goofball in the group that is clearly the case.
Pepe is our comic relief as Alan’s simple-minded lackey, given life by Sean Sprawling. Think Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite meets Alfred Molina’s apprehensive local guide from Raiders of the Lost Ark and you’ve got a handle on Pepe. Though his character takes a dark turn as the madness unfolds. It is through Pepe that we are taught of the local language and superstitions surrounding the site, which Alan omitted to mention houses the abandoned Japanese military bunker.
Paulina is unshaken by the ominous implications of mystical dolls and a creepy old man come to pray at the site. Not willing to wait for additional experts to provide their assessment of how this underground shelter could affect the stability of the building site, Paulina orders her wussy cameraman, Dave (Matthew Hegstrom) to lead the way into the darkened tomb like space.
Once inside the craziness begins as the crew is confronted by the aforementioned, Doug Jones, as an emaciated shell of a man in full body prosthetics who babbles cryptic warnings at them while choking on his own blood. It should be mentioned at this point that Katagiri made a name for himself in special effects before helming this feature film.
The director’s work at the Stan Winston studios on films such as Jurassic Park 3, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Pirates of the Caribbean, Hunger Games and even Pacific Rim speaks well of his ability to create convincing and disturbing images in camera and the lack of CGI in the film is refreshing. Soon though, a whole new kind of terror rears its head for these unfortunate captives.
An unexpected, yet key element in the psychological tortured being inflicted upon our band of explorers is time travel. After discovering the door to the bunker locked, they black out and wake to find themselves somehow transported back to World War 2. This was a surprising turn I didn’t expect to find in a film that looked to be more about ancient spectres of death, but there’s so much more.
Adding to the disorientation are horrific visions of each person’s worst nightmare brought on by past tragedies, often stemming from their own guilt. One particularly disturbing scene involves Paulina being confronted by her long dead son. As these hallucinations begin to fray their nerves, the group starts to turn on each other and we learn who the real monsters are.
Gory and unsettling imagery explodes at the viewer in the film’s climax as the final survivors fight for their lives, sanity and freedom from the haunted bunker. Determining the unfinished business of the evil spirit that torments them becomes the goal of some, but not others and this schism has deadly consequences for all involved. The final twist will give you something to chew on for sure.
One final point point to note about Gehenna is that the claustrophobic set looks like an archeological dig site, invoking the feel of Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy films or even National Treasure with Nicolas Cage. The set design itself adds an extra layer of adventure to the proceedings that a typical haunted house scenario would not.
Ultimately it is the setting of Gehenna: Where Death Lives that makes it unique. The effects work on the ghouls can be hokey in places, as are some of the performance and dialogue, but you can’t call the film unoriginal. The cultural superstition of Saipan is new ground in the world of horror and grabs your interest like a tourist along for a horrific sightseeing tour.
What’s that old saying, “We fear what we don’t understand”? Well, the unknown nature of this remote island paradise will have you wondering what could possibly be coming next and if it has the power to scare you to death.
Gehenna: Where Death Lives is available on VOD now from Uncork’d Entertainment and at select theaters throughout the country, so check your local listings.