What is the difference between punishment and atonement?
The word Gehenna is used in a variety of ways in the Abrahamic religions. In Judaism it is spoken of as a place of atonement for sin. In Christianity it is used as an opposite to the Kingdom of God. And in Islam, it is hell itself.
So, what does this word have to do with the island of Saipan? The island itself is a very important character in this film, and I’m glad it’s able to give the audience a Cole’s Notes version of the island’s history and culture, without resorting to lengthy monologues or text drops. It’s definitely important for the audience to pick up these sometimes-subtle bits of information in order for the film to have its full effect.
The indigenous people of Saipan, the Chamorro, have dealt with nothing but conquest and suffering for hundreds of years. The Spanish took over the island in the 17th century and made it an important shipping outpost in the Pacific. The Japanese gained control of the island after WWI and reigned brutally over the locals until the Allies reconquered it during WWII. Even today, a new form of colonialism has overtaken the island. It was a booming hub of garment manufacturing (because as a US protectorate, clothing made there could carry the all-important Made in USA label while still paying slave wages) for decades, and now is being reinvented as a casino resort destination. And that is what brings our group of protagonists to the island; looking for the future site of a new American resort.
The number of Chamorro on Saipan today is less than 10,000, and they are mostly known for their innocuous superstition surrounding Bojobo Dolls. These little woven dolls, featuring a man and a woman tied together, are said to grant wishes, depending on how you hang the dolls in your home. But apparently, they also can also serve a more sinister purpose.
The opening scene is of a Spanish man in 1670 being ritually tortured, his face cut off, and left to die, walled in a cave, with one half of a Bojobo doll pair. This is supposed to represent a separation between him and the rest of the world. A spiritual shunning for his crimes.
So how does that lead to the version of Gehenna the five unlucky protagonists of this film find themselves in? At first glance they don’t seem like overly sinister or sinful people. Paulina, the business-woman is quite pushy, but that’s hardly unexpected of successful women trying to climb the corporate ladder in a man’s world. Alan, the real-estate broker, is certainly slimy, but appears harmless. Tyler the architectural consultant is dour and professional, videographer Dave is a bright-eyed millennial with lots of toys (and a very inappropriate Japanese t-shirt), and local indigenous fixer Pepe is obviously meant to be the bumbling comic relief. Not exactly the Manson Family.
Yet, when this group stumbles upon an old Japanese bunker from WWII they are sucked into a situation that will bring them face-to-face with their sins, and challenge them to atone, or die.
As they explore the dark bunker, they discover several decayed corpses, and a ghoulish, skeletal old man. Played by the ever-unrecognizable Doug Jones, he is a vision of torment. The level of emaciation and frailty seems at once utterly impossible, but absolutely believable. The Old Man tries to warn the group that they need to leave immediately, before he is accidentally killed by a frightened Alan.
Then the earth shakes, a deafening noise causes everyone to clutch their ears, and pass out on the floor. When everyone awakes, the WWII-era lights have come on, the Old Man and the bodies have disappeared and the only exit has been completely blocked.
At this point, the film really begins, and the audience is given a myriad of clues to figure out what exactly this place is, what it wants, and what has to be done to escape. I truly appreciate a film that doesn’t treat the audience like they are idiots. If you pay attention, you will put the puzzle pieces together long before the cast (or at least, one particular member of the cast). The foreshadowing is subtle, the reveals are well-paced, and the ending itself brings everything full-circle in such a magnificent way.
With all that being said, if you’re watching GEHENNA for the thrills and chills, it doesn’t deliver quite the way you might expect from the premise. The horror of this film is truly a psychological horror. While the manifestations of the protagonists’ sins are designed to be very creepy, the film doesn’t use them purely for jump scares. They’re mostly used to show the emotional reactions of the protagonists to being confronted with their own guilt.
Because, in the end, what is more terrifying? A spirit jumping out of a corner at you, or the knowledge that your sins have alienated you from everything in the world you love?
All-in-all, I have to say this a great first project for director Hiroshi Katagiri. His background in make-up FX, sculpting and puppeteering have really equipped him with the knowledge to create some impressive visuals, even on a Kickstarter budget. The make-up FX in this film are top notch, and not overused. If you’re a fan of history, religion and psychological horror, this movie is for you.
PS – Even if Doug Jones and Lance Henriksen are little more than cameos used to increase the film’s profile, I can forgive them for that, just because of the excellent little post-credits stinger from Henriksen. I was not expecting it at all!
GEHENNA: WHERE DEATH LIVES will arrive in select theaters across the U.S. and on digital Friday, May 4.