As a dictionary-style onscreen definition explains at the start of “Gehanna: Where Death Lives,” that G-word is a long-standing term for a “most accursed place [or] destination of the wicked,” although not necessarily to be confused with Hell. (It has different histories and meanings in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.) An opening sequence of an old man having his face ripped off by muttering ritual practitioners in loincloths certainly doesn’t make it seem an ideal getaway spot.
Nonetheless, this English-language directorial debut for makeup FX specialist Hiroshi Katagiri sets its protagonists on a sacred burial spot they hope to turn into a commercial resort — something to which the resident spirits take great exception, natch. Trapped in an underground labyrinth, their predicament becomes all too relatable, since the movie itself strands viewers in a dimly lit purgatory that grows interminable, with little in the way of scares or excitement as relief. It’s not a total wash, but the eventually dreary mix of vague religious morality and rather ponderous horror suggests Katagiri should pay more attention to script development next time out. The film, which premiered at festivals in 2016, launches in U.S. theaters and on VOD May 4.
Hopping from Saipan to one of the smaller North Mariana Islands (a U.S. commonwealth in the western Pacific), briskly businesslike American Paulina (Eva Swan) is negotiating the acquisition of some gorgeously situated beachside property for her boss’s (Lance Henriksen) latest resort. She’s brought along discreetly devoted architectural consultant Tyler (Justin Gordon) and amiably flaky videographer Dave (Matthew Edward Hegstrom) to check out the site, with rather slimy real-estate broker Alan (Simon Phillips) and his comedy-relief native assistant Pepe (Sean Sprawling) as guides. They know the island is shunned by other locals as cursed due to its ugly history: During WWII it was occupied by brutal Japanese troops, while further back, Spanish colonists likewise cruelly abused the native population.
Still, hearing those tales is different from stumbling upon a cave entrance to old underground military bunkers, which an irked Paulina insists they explore since it could be a dangerous liability to the planned resort. It’s a long, dank descent to abandoned barracks where the skeletons of Japanese soldiers are duly found. In yet another level below lie eerie monuments and wall inscriptions left by indigenous Chamorro people who suffered greatly under centuries of Spanish rule.
The trespassers in this spooky subterranean graveyard are considerably alarmed to encounter a seemingly alive, emaciated, ghoulish man (Doug Jones of “Pan’s Labyrinth”) who frantically warns them to leave — before belligerent Alan inconsiderably bashes his head against the wall. At this point, about half an hour in, some sort of earthquake/blackout occurs. When everyone returns to their senses, the skeletal man and corpses have vanished. But the way out is now blocked, and our protagonists gradually discover that they’re now in a different time, or dimension — one in which a WWII Japanese officer (Masashi Odate) might threaten them at gunpoint, and where their own secret sins (nearly everyone here carries some mortal guilt) are punished with accusatory flashbacks and hallucinations.
It’s a promising-enough premise. But limited as much by imagination as budget, “Gehenna” soon grows rather tedious. The protagonists squabble (Alan inevitably emerging as the least-helpful and most-homicidal among the party); they run about in the dark with faulty flashlights; and they’re occasionally tempted toward self-harm by ghouls who remind them of past misdeeds. The claustrophobia of the subterranean setting could have been chilling (see “The Descent”), and the torments of any Hades-like eternity certainly haven’t been dull in films such as 1960 Japanese cult classic “Jigoku,” Jose Maria Marins’ Brazilian exploitation wigout “This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse” or Ron Ormond’s revival-tent epic “The Burning Hell.”
Japanese-born Katagiri (who’s contributed creature FX to many major popcorn fantasies in recent years, including “X-Men,” “Hunger Games” and “Pacific Rim” installments) provides sufficiently creepy ghoul makeup, and cinematographer Yohei Tateishi achieves a decent widescreen look. But “Gehenna” rapidly becomes monotonous in tone, incident and aesthetic. Economic limitations needn’t have so constrained the atmospherics, let alone the ability to come up with enlivening twists. Even that staple of low-budget horror, the jump scare, barely surfaces here.
Performances are competent in lead roles that don’t offer a lot to work with. Top-billed in the advertising, genre fan faves Jones and Henriksen make just token appearances, one in heavy makeup, the other literally phoning in his brief bit. And it’s a mistake to bring back Henriksen for a limp post-closing-credits punchline that wouldn’t even make a good gag-reel goof.