31 Days of Hell: Hellgate (2011) - Reviewed

Don’t you just hate when the title for a movie is used more than once and you have to include all this additional information in the description to differentiate them?  With the most infamous example being David Cronenberg’s Crash being mixed up with Paul Haggis’ Crash or how John Carpenter’s The Thing and the recent prequel uses the same name with no subtitle or moniker to separate itself, upon watching this 2011 IFC VOD release I discovered there are at least three Hellgate movies including a forthcoming one coming in 2017.  

But I digress.  This 2011 Hellgate (originally titled Shadows), not to be confused with the 1952 Western or the 1989 horror film getting the Arrow Video treatment, is another one of those second-sight unfinished business ghost story movies we’ve seen all too many times before.  Starring Cary Elwes, who seems condemned to B-movie slutdom ever since he took on Saw, and the tragically overqualified William Hurt who couldn’t look more bored than he does here, Hellgate is set in Thailand and concerns a man who recovers from a car accident that claimed his wife and son and is haunted daily by demonic visions of shadowy figures walking around in his home.  Written and directed by Return of the Living Dead III screenwriter John Penney, the question is whether or not this crossbreed of The Dead Zone, The Changeling and Stir of Echoes with teasings of the inferno and notions of ghosts trapped between our world and the next sound even remotely scary to you?  I’m sorry to say it really isn’t.  Mid-picture, I was as bored as William Hurt seemed to be on the set of this scare free dirge.

Setting the film in Thailand is about the only saving grace this thing has, which exploits the labyrinthine cityscape of skyscrapers and slums for the sake of the camera as much as it highlights the beautiful countryside as a tourist attraction.  There’s also ample room for classical Taiwanese folklore and superstition which could have made for a good international thriller preying on distinctly American fears of foreign otherworldly grudges and hauntings.  There’s enough meat here that you could have managed to make a somewhat unnerving horror thriller out of it.  Thanks however to a completely tonally mismatched score which sounds like the introduction to the hit TV series Intervention, clumsy editing replete with bad frame dropping and even worse CGI, Hellgate is as frightening as Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows which was a textbook example in its own right of everything you don’t do with horror.  Poor Cary Elwes, that once A-list actor in The Princess Bride, Glory and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, has taken a serious fall from grace over the years due in large part to his scenery chewing.  

Outside of looking like he has the flu for the whole duration of this picture, his attempts at looking scared or confused are borderline hysterical without being convincing.  Meanwhile you have William Hurt whose stoic, dimly lit eyes and beard seem to suggest a half-bored enthusiasm for the role, if any.  Meanwhile the picture keeps throwing us rapid-fire close-ups of fanged red-scaled demons with contact lenses you can buy at the latest Halloween Bazaar, so much so that if there was any fear to be elicited by their appearance early on (which never happened), their over-existence on the screen renders them null and void.  Yes you can make the comparative argument George A. Romero’s zombie omnipresence in Dawn of the Dead ultimately achieves the same effect over the course of the picture, but I’m willing to bet that was intentional on Romero’s part and that John Penney didn’t think that deeply about it when he was making Hellgate.

Need fried chicken................................

Each year, The Movie Sleuth covers horror movies around Halloween, usually ones we recommend our readers see.  But every now and again, I feel dutiful in letting you know about which ones to avoid and Hellgate 2011 is absolutely one to leave on the shelf should you pass it by on your next trip to Family Video.  Thailand can be an interesting setting for horror, the most memorable of which in recent memory being Nicolas Winding Refn’s much maligned Only God Forgives.  There’s enough old fashioned superstition and God-fearing there to make a splendid horror film despite the clich├ęd premise of Hellgate.  Some of the best, most successful horror films of the past several years are re-workings of familiar, even tired tropes we’ve seen done to death.  And yet the reason they work is not because of what they depict, but how they depict it and what they have to say about the premise that hasn’t been said before.  In the right hands, Hellgate could have been something we haven’t seen before, at least not in the independent horror scene.  Instead, what we have here is an unfrightening snooze which can easily be dumped on the SyFy Channel where it deserves to die a quiet death and ultimately be forgotten.  

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- Andrew Kotwicki