The concept of Hell or Hades, that place of eternal fire and brimstone the souls of evil wrongdoers go after they die, is as old as time itself and as such a favorite staple of the horror genre. Visualized as either another dimension or an inverse look at our own Earth, often with images of towering flames, souls tormented by fanged and horned demons and a centaur like creature who rules supreme, Hell is one of the most feared places in theology, mythology and traditional folklore. Popularized by Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy with its many stages of the underworld including Hell, Purgatory and finally Paradise, the concept of Hell is intrinsic to pop cultural notions of morality, morality and the prospect of eternal damnation. Simply put, this most dreaded of places beyond comprehension with only our imagination to provide some sort of interpretation is in our blood and serves as a moral compass of sorts guiding people towards the light instead of the dark. With 31 Days of Hell kicking off this month for the Movie Sleuth, it occurred to me that through all the horror movies we cover each year this special October holiday rolls around that we rarely focus on the titular underworld of torment and punishment itself. Some films such as the Hellraiser series or Dante’s Inferno devote themselves entirely to visualizing the concept on film, but what about the more unique interpretations that are not necessarily of the horror genre or aren’t the primary focus but serve as part of the whole? In other words, this particular underworld which in and of itself has become synonymous with horror and Halloween, what are some of the examples of this classical vision of the endless pit that don’t necessarily appear where or as we would expect them to be? With this, the Movie Sleuth takes a good look at eight unique imaginings of the underworld you didn’t expect, aren’t necessarily tied to horror and don’t follow those overplayed traditions of hoofed and horned figures dancing around flames with souls crying out in torment.
Douglas Trumbull’s 1983 ill-fated cult classic Brainstorm about a team of scientists who develop a headset which can record and playback human thoughts and experiences on a 70mm rainbow colored magnetic tape is a visual effects light and sound show of boundless imagination full of awe and wonderment, the kind of by design which plays like an IMAX movie ride transporting the viewer into worlds they’ve never been in before. It’s cinema as sensory gratification with a unique play on the dynamics between 35mm film and 70mm widescreen film as well as monaural sound versus 6-track magnetic Dolby Stereo, very much a tech demo as thought provoking science fiction. Mid-picture, one of the scientists Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) suffers a heart attack and dies, but not before she manages to slip the headset on and hit the record button, capturing her journey into the afterlife on tape for anyone brave enough to see what lies on the other side. Chief scientist Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) becomes obsessed and determined with unlocking the secrets of this tape even if it endangers his own life and we experience with him a journey into the past, present and finally the afterlife through the headset. Upon his journey is a very brief but unforgettable glimpse of Hell which is forever etched onto the memory of all who see it. Lasting only a few seconds (cut considerably after test audiences reacted too strongly to it), instead of the traditional images of mountain rock and fire, we instead find ourselves trapped in these fleshy cocoons of meat, muscle, ligaments, blood and fluid with translucent bubbles of tormented and bloodied souls clawing at the walls as sparks and lightning flash amid the messy, organic looking environment. Shown in a rapid succession of subliminal flash cuts, it’s among the few visions of the afterlife photographed in 65mm and of the visions of the underworld the least like any other I can think of in film. It’s a shame this sequence was trimmed down to nothing after bad previews, as it’s a wholly original vision with physicality and a genuinely organic look to it, the likes of which have only been seen in some of the living fleshscapes seen in iD Software’s Doom series.
All Dogs Go to Heaven
Is it just me or are Don Bluth’s animated family features all filled with moments that are frankly traumatizing for children? Whether it’s the allegorical connection to the holocaust in An American Tail with it’s central hero Fievel violently separated from his family or the death of Littlefoot’s mother in The Land Before Time or even the backstory of the rats in The Secret of NIMH, the former Disney animator who broke away from the studio to form his own animation team in favor of the more saturated colors of Disney’s earlier Golden Age of animation has churned out quite the list of somewhat edgier animated features over the course of the 1980s and 90s. While not quite approaching the degree of graphic violence of Martin Rosen’s adaptation of Watership Down, the events of three or four of Bluth’s films easily eclipse the potentially traumatizing elements of, say, Disney’s The Lion King or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Case in point is the 1989 film All Dogs Go to Heaven, a colorful musical comedy about a German Shepherd named Charlie (voiced by Burt Reynolds) with criminal ties who is murdered by his former partner Carface (Vic Tayback) but rejects his place in Heaven in order to come back to life. Throughout the film is a veiled threat of going to Hell as punishment for forsaking Heaven and in a particularly terrifying and seemingly out-of-nowhere nightmare sequence Charlie experiences, that quite literally happens as the mutt imagines himself thrust deep through a tornado into a volcanic lava soaked underworld of skeletons, fire and Hellhounds which bite and claw at the terrified dog. If that’s not enough, towering over Charlie is a ball of fire which transforms into a kind of Hellhound dragon that is infinitely more frightening than anything from Maleficent’s doing in Sleeping Beauty. Though it only appears to be a dream sequence as Charlie awakens to cute little puppies tugging at him, wondering what’s wrong, the nightmare sequence leaves quite the mark and in Bluth’s oeuvre is among the most terrifying sequences the animator has ever created.
The Black Hole
Years before Paul W.S. Anderson of Mortal Kombat fame gave us “Hellraiser in Space” in the form of the 1997 science fiction horror thriller Event Horizon, the idea of a spaceship with interstellar space travel by utilizing the untamed energies of a black hole inadvertently opening a portal to the netherworld was touched on much earlier by Disney’s The Black Hole in 1979. Quick to capitalize on the Star Wars craze, Walt Disney Productions embarked on what would be their most expensive commercial and commercial failure to date with a kind of mad-scientist thriller involving a team of astronauts from the USS Palomino who stumble upon a ship orbiting a black hole. Armed with an evil robot named Maximilian which looks sort of like a cross between the androids of Battlestar Galactica merged with Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet, the star studded crew of the Palomino soon find themselves fighting for their lives against an army of drones led by the diabolical Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) as the ship drifts closer to the gravitational pull of the black hole. Largely a special effects bonanza aimed at kids despite being considerably more violent than anything Disney had released at the time and failed attempt to produce a successful toy line of tie-in action figures, The Black Hole joins All Dogs Go to Heaven as another “family” oriented movie that makes an out-of-nowhere swan dive into the abyss of eternal fire. In a surreal sequence aiming to defy the space time continuum in the same manner the finale of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey did as the crew of the Palomino are sucked into the titular black hole, the film’s central villains Reinhardt and his robot Maximilian become fused together as one being in a kind of inter-dimensional Hellscape of towering flames, brimstone and forsaken mountaintops. While only lasting about a minute along with an equally baffling vista of Heaven which assails the viewer before both we and the crew emerge from the black hole intact, this brief slow motion visual effects shot of the inferno is still talked about to this day from the mouths of former 7 year old viewers who went to see Star Wars and did not see the traumatizing kingdom of Beelzebub coming at all. Moreover, while we’ve come to expect former Disney animator Don Bluth to serve up this sort of witches’ brew, seeing it come out of Disney itself remains a most unusual moment in their creative history. By now, The Black Hole has mostly all but been forgotten as a mediocre cash-in on the Star Wars phenomenon that managed to open up a few doors in the special effects department but ultimately is regarded as a bit of an eyesore for the company. That said, it still laid the tracks for Event Horizon and marked one of the few times the Disney machine tried to push the envelope with images and ideas child viewers weren’t necessarily used to or prepared for.
Akira Kurosawa's Dreams
An achingly beautiful tearjerker or the most self-indulgent effort in the career of one of Japan’s greatest film directors, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (his second feature financed with American money) is at once the director’s most cherished and divisive creation to date. Fully funded by Warner Brothers with assistance from Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, Dreams is a series of eight surreal vignettes based on various dreams the director had. While seemingly lacking a conventional narrative plot between each seemingly disconnected segment, the film follows who seems to be a young Kurosawa in the process of aging into adulthood. A work of pure magical imagination, the likes of which wouldn’t have been possible were it not for Kurosawa’s stature as one of world cinema’s most important creative visionaries, Dreams is full of such ethereal awe and haunting beauty that to see and hear it is overwhelming. It is also the least likely place you would expect to find a vision of Hell, as so much of Dreams seems poised to reach for the Heavens in an attempt to touch God. And yet, Dreams contains two segments which take the viewer into the mouth of Hades itself, starting with the segment Mount Fuji in Red depicting nuclear holocaust when a power plant begins to melt down and ending with a literal foray into the pit with The Weeping Demon. Depicting a war torn Tokyo amid a misty mountain, our nameless protagonist (Kurosawa in spirit) stumbles upon a deformed vagrant with a horn growing out of his head. It turns out the physical deformities and oversized botanical life are the result of nuclear fallout and soon our hero is led towards a blood soaked water hole with many tortured souls writhing about in agony as they clutch their horns and claw the soil. As close to a literal interpretation of a Hieronymus Bosch painting as the legendary Japanese auteur has ever come, Mount Fuji in Red and The Weeping Demon represent a truly chilling vision of the underworld created by man’s own self-destructive tendency towards nuclear annihilation. Part of what makes The Weeping Demon so profoundly unsettling is how long Kurosawa holds on slow motion images of agonized tortured souls twisting and contorting, leaving ample time for the atmosphere to soak itself in. While some may point towards Nobou Nakagawa’s Jigoku as a source of inspiration, never once did that film in all of its grotesque splendor manage to unsettle me quite the way Kurosawa’s The Weeping Demon did, conjuring up notions that the worst demons in all of the netherworld are within each and every one of us.
The filmography of David Lynch and his surrealist world building of the subconscious mind seen through Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me envision classical Americana as a kind of nightmarish Hellscape where nothing seems really real and every character is of a duplicitous nature. When approaching Lynch’s work, it’s important to go in knowing we’re most likely seeing the dream states of his characters firsthand with logical or deductive reasoning tossed out the window. For as frightening and at times inhuman his worlds depicted onscreen seem, they can all be rationalized by the backgrounds of his characters and how what we’re seeing is an extension of their mindset rather than a literal event in action. Very rarely do Lynch’s waking nightmares draw comparison to the concept of Hell or eternal damnation unless we’re really reaching for an explanation, but in the case of his 1997 neo-noir horror thriller Lost Highway, this might in fact be the closest the auteur has come to visualizing the inescapable underworld as a kind of endless black highway at night with occasional detours with hitchhiking lost souls. Influenced by the O.J. Simpson murder trial, Lost Highway concerns an uptight couple (Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette) who begin receiving videotapes on their doorstep of themselves sleeping in their own home. Later still at a lounge party, Pullman is accosted by a strange palefaced man with no eyebrows dressed in black (creepily played by Robert Blake) who informs Pullman he is standing in front of him and is at his house at the same time. Pullman scoffs until the man asks him to call his home and upon dialing the man in black answers on the other end. As the film’s labyrinthine neo-noir plot unfolds with dopplegangers, gangsters, pornographers, lost time and what Lynch referred to as ‘psychogenic fugue’, a recurring motif in several of Lynch’s films of a black highway with yellow painted stripes appears throughout the film. Images of a cabin in flames, the man in black with a video camera appearing throughout as a kind of demonic companion to the film’s ensemble cast of evil characters and what appears to be an electrocution taking place all add up to a nightmarish vision of people trapped in the confines of the highway. Lynch’s previous film, based on the hit television show Twin Peaks, already dealt heavily in the arena of demonic possession but with Lost Highway he seems to drop the viewer right into ground zero with the characters lurking about in the shadows until the blinding headlights illuminating the titular lost highway draw them out of the darkness. Even after all of the strange and scary places Lynch has taken viewers over the last decade, I can’t think of a bleaker vision of Hell than being stuck on an endless black highway with a man with no eyebrows leering over my shoulder.
This entry is a little different from the rest in that it stems from a videogame instead of a film, although of the offerings listed this might be one of the most unique and deeply terrifying total vision of Hell ever conceived. Previously released on the PlayStation 4 and intended as a playable teaser for what ultimately did not become Silent Hills after being sadly cancelled by Konami, P.T. is a thoroughly unsettling gaming experience which takes the dream logic of the Silent Hill series and turns it on its head. In the game, you awaken on the floor as cockroaches crawl nearby and open a door to an eerie hallway inside a home with the chandelier rocking back and forth lightly. As you reach the end of the hallway you go through a door and, good God, you’re right back where you started. Soon as you continue to find an exit or look for carefully hidden clues including time changes on the clock, insignia written on photographs and messages on a radio, you will traverse this same hallway over and over again until things go from subtly strange to overtly terrifying. Sometimes you’ll hear laughing or crying, eerie shaking spirits peering through windows and at one point the hallway itself changes colors with a ghostly figure standing at the opposite end of the hallway. Really, is there a more frightening vision of Hell than this? Imagine being stuck in the same hallway ad infinitum with no escape and an ever shifting environment that only becomes more dangerous and frightening with time. There’s a limit to how far you can progress in this puzzle game before time runs out and you are abruptly assaulted and killed by some kind of demon whose shaky face with eyes rolled back into its head shakes violently before you die. The sound design itself is particularly unnerving with disembodied cackling and strange industrial sounds filling the rear channels of your surround sound system. It’s not so much that P.T. assaults you with scare after scare but after a while of being stuck in the same environment that grows more and more bizarre and unearthly as time goes on, you find yourself increasingly desperate to escape this prison. There was a point playing this at 3am in 7.1 surround sound where even though nothing was happening, just being stuck in this hallway where anything evil could happen at any moment with the same sounds growing steadily louder became too much and I had to shut it off. I’m an avid fan of survival horror with the second Silent Hill game released on the PlayStation 2 being my favorite videogame of all time. To this day, nothing tops P.T. in terms of white knuckle terror in survival horror. If there is a Hell, it is being trapped in a hallway like the one in P.T. where there’s no way to leave and no way to predict what will happen to you next.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s transposition of the Marquis De Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom into Italy in the waning days of WWII, Salo, remains one of the most shocking and deeply disturbing films of all time. Initially reviled and censored before Pasolini’s untimely death (some still argue his passing is linked to the film) before grudgingly being called a work of modern art, Salo concerns four Nazi-fascists in Mussolini ruled Italy who kidnap a large number of women and children before housing them in a secluded castle and enacting their every perversely violent sexual desire on their victims, culminating in ritualistic murder and death. Dripping from the seams with torture and degradation, Salo was and still is a difficult watch made by one of Italy’s most celebrated intellectual provocateurs in the throes of artistic crisis. Intended to be an almost Dadaist transitional work before returning to his bawdier life affirming films spoken in the same breath as his Trilogy of Life, Salo represents the one time the extreme artist created an expression of negativity and hopelessness. While undeniably based on fact with the intention to shock and anger viewers with war atrocities of the past, it truly is the finale of the film with the more subservient victims taken under the fascists’ wings and the rebellious ones subjected to unspeakable tortures that provides a physical flesh and blood image of Hell on Earth. Through the use of wide angle shots and binocular close-ups through the fascists’ sneering point of view, we become complicit in the gazing upon the atrocities ensuing onscreen much in the same way Michael Haneke’s Funny Games’ serial killers involve you the viewer in the wrongdoing. As Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana plays on the soundtrack over Hieronymous Bosch inspired images of naked bodies being raped, whipped, mutilated, and branded as the demonic fascists savor every infliction of pain committed against innocent victims, we get a very real physical sense of a kind of Hell both Earthly and symbolic. During the tortures, one of the fascists asks a former victim turned new recruit if he knows how a Bolshevik goes into the red sea and remarks ‘He goes splash!’ Pasolini’s bleak and anarchic vision of Hell is a depraved ocean of blood, flesh, shit and piss into which we the unfortunate spectators too must go splash.
God’s Wrath is Hell
If there’s any social collective that lives in constant fear of Hell and eternal damnation the most, it is undoubtedly the born again Christians. Preaching that if you don’t pray all day everyday you will surely plunge into the inferno, there has never been a more terrified or terrifying group than this one. Emerging from the group are a series of DVDs available on the website www.freecdtracts.com consisting of a number of compact discs, lectures, pamphlets and of course, low budget short films dramatizing the dreaded abyss. Most of them are just conversational with testimonies from people claiming to have had near death experiences where they caught a glimpse of Hell and all of its horrors firsthand, but one which stood out from the rest and circulated frequently on YouTube is a nine minute short video known as God’s Wrath is Hell. Opening with the tagline ‘If you died tonight, where would you go?’ and depicting a woman who is in intensive care after a life threatening car accident, the woman goes under and reawakens bound and gagged in some kind of flesh, chain and rock covered netherworld where disembodied screams can be heard in the distance, ribcage like prison gates with streams of light shining through and decomposed entities hanging upside down are tormented by demons. Inhuman intestinal-like worms and snakes creep in amid fire and smoke as the terrified woman looks on. Many of the props and effects in this thing are obviously cheap Halloween props that are dressed up with lighting, fog machines and clever editing but some of it works. There’s a witchy demon with a spider and strange facehugger-like creature which claws its way free of her chest before being lit on fire and a lot of flimsy looking plastic skeletons shaking violently in a cauldron. Then there is of course a red-eyed horned demon promising horrific tortures which looks like a cross between the monster from Michael Mann’s The Keep and the xenomorph from Alien if they had sex with one of the terror dogs from Ghostbusters. Think of a well-dressed Haunted House amusement park that just so happened to be filmed and cut together into a video. There doesn’t seem to be one version of this little Christploitation Halloween video, with some versions including snippets from the remake of Pulse starring Kristen Bell and others with a pastor preaching Hell, fire and brimstone to all nonbelievers. As it stands, there’s not a lot of information about the making of this short video online, who directed it or who stars in it though many Christian sites host the video including a DVD you can order online. Of the visions of Hell on this list, God’s Wrath is Hell is easily the cheapest and silliest one designed with the sole purpose of converting nonbelievers through the use of fear. But it had some nifty moments Bosch and Giger would be proud of.
- Andrew Kotwicki