'Gehenna: Where Death Lives' offers delightfully refreshing twist (review)
3.5Overall Score

Gehenna: Where Death Lives” follows a group of property developers on a visit to Saipan. The 2016 horror thriller is written and directed by Hiroshi Katagiri. Benefiting from a refreshingly original plot, stellar practical effects, a great score and wonderful acting, “Gehenna: Where Death Lives” is a surprise hit.

The film starts in 1670 where an elderly man is tortured and locked in a cave by shamans. Flash forward to present day where Paulina (Eva Swan), Alan (Simon Phillips), Tyler (Justin Gordon), and Dave (Matthew Edward Hegstrom) explore property in Saipan. Their company plans to open a resort on a remote area of the island. However locals warn that the land is cursed. Local guide Pepe (Sean Sprawling) dismisses the legends as folklore.

As Paulina, Tyler, Dave, Alan, and Pepe probe the planned development area, they find an uncharted area: an abandoned WWII bunker. As this could present structural problems, they opt to venture into the bunker.

“Gehenna: Where Death Lives” begins like a fairly recognizable film. There’s the group with differing personalities. Tyler has an unrequited love for Paulina, Dave is the goofy but sincere videographer, Alan the acerbic, power hungry one. After finding the entrance to a WWII bunker, against all logic (especially horror film logic), they decide to plunge inside. Up until this point, there’s a lot of foreshadowing in ominous warnings from shamans.

Shortly after entering the bunker, the adventure takes a strange and sinister turn. Visions plague the group, and the “logical explanation” they agree on is far from rational. For the first half of the film, “Gehenna” feels pretty familiar. It’s well acted, but evocative of the supernatural thriller genre. However there’s a substantial twist that plodding unravels. Once I realized what was going on, I wanted to rewatch from the beginning. A few easter eggs hint very subtly at what’s happening, almost like “Snowpiercer.”

The score really shines. Composer Yuan Liu crafts an excellent soundtrack that fits the film well. Acting is on point. The lead characters rapidly hone their characters and lend a sense of strong personalities. Moreover, as the film progresses backstories emerge. Veteran actor Doug Jones appears as “creepy old man,” and Jones truly steals every scene he’s in. Notably the makeup department excels at practical effects. Jones fully transforms as he so spectacularly does in films like “Hellboy,” “Love in the Time of Monsters,” and “The Bye Bye Man.” The Seasoned Lance Henriksen has an all too brief appearance as Morgan, a high up company exec.

While “Gehenna” does quite a bit well, it occasionally stumbles. There’s an opening scene with Paulina struggling in the water which doesn’t quite make sense. Eventually it’s explained, but never revisited. While it’s relevant to her character arc, including this really quick scene feels unnecessary. Additionally the first part of “Gehenna” features several tropes. It’s not the most original at the onset, but it’s simply a set up for the delightful and satisfying twist. And while “Gehenna” is a thriller, it’s decidedly thoughtful in its progression. Don’t expect a quick paced film. This aspect I quite enjoyed, but it’s not for everyone.

Ultimately, “Gehenna: Where Death Lives” is a solid slow burn. While the initial half doesn’t offer anything revolutionary, the spectacular twist, amazing effects, masterful score, and great acting from both veterans and newcomers alike makes “Gehenna” an enjoyable thriller. It’s got high replay value, and after the “aha” moment you’ll want to immediately rewatch armed with the knowledge of what’s unfurling.