Split Decision: Hell, Boy
Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below!
This week’s question:
In honor of the Hellboy reboot, what is your favorite cinematic depiction of Hell?
Oh, Hell. While I did love Lars von Trier's depiction of Hell in The House that Jack Built, when I think of cinematic presentations of Hell, I believe Pier Paolo Pasolini captured it best in his adaptation of one of my favorite works of literature, Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Here Hell is noisy and smelly and inspired by Hieronymus Bosch's paintings. The damned are shat out an ass into a pit polluted by farts and populated by dozens of naked people doing despicable things. It really delivers.
This is barely an answer, but I love the beginning of Drive Angry, where Nic Cage escapes Hell in a sports car, having stolen "Godkiller," Satan's favorite gun. We don't see Hell, but it's fun to think about what it looks like in this world, that a person could drive out of it. There are paved roads to and from Hell.
The more "real" answer (only more real because we see it onscreen) is The Nothing from The Neverending Story. It's a windy, dark storm that rips through everything and leaves, you know, nothing. It's a somewhat sentient version of Hell that replaces the things it touches and has power over a talking wolf. The Nothing makes a giant turtle with the flu give up all hope!
Constantine is not the kind of comic book adaptation we get today, seeing as how it strays pretty far from the source material. But this movie is secretly great. It posits a world where God and the Devil are constantly wagering and vying for control of the souls of mankind. Keanu Reeves plays John Constantine, a man who can see angels and demons because of a failed suicide attempt that had him in Hell for two minutes. Now he knows how to visit using a familiar and tries to prevent demons from taking over Earth. Visually, it looks similar to Drive Angry, but this Hell is populated with headless demons, the damned, and all kinds of creepy things that want to get their hands on it.
Hellraiser immediately jumps to mind, likely due to my Christian roots. The specific "hell" imagery of that movie has sat with me through much of my adult life and still truly disturbs me in a way few movies do. It folds Christian mythology into a particularly grotesque and sadistic shape, turning even the promise of salvation into a celebration of torture. Much in the way a youth full of Sunday School never lets you forget there is punishment for sinning, Hellraiser lingers in the back of my mind as a sort of ultimate fulfillment of what that version of Christianity offers. There is no escaping that devil, as sin is explicitly part of our nature. And even the savior had to experience "exquisite pain" to achieve salvation. With the Cenobites essentially describing pain and pleasure as indistinguishable from one another, Hellraiser posits that Heaven and Hell are all the same and we spend our lives fooling ourselves rather than enjoying the few true pleasures available to us here and now. It's rather uplifting, don't ya think?
Hey Garrett, I'll raise (heh heh) you one Hellraiser- and go with Hellbound: Hellraiser II. The sequel in which they actually go to hell! A giant phallic plant monster rips a Cenobite's head in half. Sounds a lot like hell to me. The use of really beautiful matte paintings to present Hell as a sort of gothic labyrinth, combined with Christopher Young's haunting score, make this one the Hell movie for me.
Having witnessed Hell myself in the form of the South Street Whole Foods on a Sunday, it's hard to depict god's reject-hole in a way that I find effective. I second Gary's nod to The House That Jack Built (which 100% rules, top to bottom), but I've gotta go with a movie that doesn't necessarily depict Hell directly, but does make a very strong case for how awful it is. I'm referring, of course, to Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell. Made as of to say "hey, I can still do horror better than you pansies" after the idiosyncratic filmmaker emerged from franchise purgatory, Drag Me To Hell puts its heroine through Hell on earth before literally dragging her into the flames. The demons/entities/talking goats which emerge from beyond are a circus show of maniacal nasties, serving as an appetizer for an awful fate of which we get the shortest, most agonizing window as Christine (Alison Lohman) is pulled into eternal suffering — her punishment for failing to do the wrong thing. Seriously, what the hell?
My recollections of were populated first by fragmented iterations of the underworld from Loony-Tunes and the like. But upon some regrettable consideration the darker parts seeped into my mind. First I fell into the hellish technicolor mania of the dream sequence in Kurosawa’s Kagemush, a significantly hellish evocation on its own. But I wanted to tap into something more disturbing, something executed with with greater abandon and fewer scruples. Event Horizon (1997), which posited hell as an interstitial dimension traversed as a result of space-folding travel technology, is a salient one in my thoughts. It does't formally depict "hell" so much as imply it through effect, as if some force were trying to terraform our dimension into a likewise hellscape. The titular space vessel disappears in 2040 on its maiden voyage to Proxima Centauri. Using an experimental gravity drive designed by Dr. William Weir (Sam Neil), the Event Horizon generates a miniature black hole to bridge two points in space-time, but seven years laps before the ship reappears in Neptune's orbit. Cue a rescue/research mission full of foreboding and red flags, cue everything going swiftly to hell in a handbasket, cue a Sam Neil at his most deranged, cue some Hellraiser inspired psychologically-inflected torture porn as each characters' succeptibilities/damages/histories are tamped and stoked by the residual evil from that dark "inbewteen world" which inhabits the ship and hungers for victims. Tapping into Weir's grief for his deceased wife and guilt about the maiden crew, the presence aboard works its evil through influence, through puppetry (as it had with the original crew, making them do unspeakable things to one another). One of the more fantastically gory mainstream flicks of my youth, EH seeds deep in how dark and crazed it was willing to be, a high concept high budget sci-fi horror film at a time where there were few such things and uncertain demand. To be honest I haven't seen it since, but the images of fire floating like liquid in zero gravity, a naked Sam Neil cut head to toe with scars, a suspended body flayed wide open with its innards spilled out on a table... these images stick, as does the mood and tactility. Plagued by Paramount's interference, Paul W. S Anderson was forced to excise almost 40 minutes from his initial edit at the sacrifice of character, depravity, violence and coherency. When cult status grew and vhs/dvd sales performed way beyond expectations Paramount wanted to re-cobble the longer edit, which Anderson was all aboard for, but the studio had stupidly damaged and/or destroyed the footage. We dig our own graves I guess.