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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Back Door to Hell
Back Door to Hell
Fox // Unrated // May 23, 2006
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted May 24, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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Pretty good considering its obviously low budget, Back Door to Hell (1964) is an American-Filipino co-production originally co-financed by folkish crooner Jimmie Rodgers and Fox subsidiary Lippert Pictures**, and the first official collaboration between fledging director Monte Hellman and a young actor named Jack Nicholson. (Hellman was one of several directors who filmed parts of 1963's The Terror.) Like most of Hellman's films, Back Door to Hell offers a few exceptionally strong, intimate performances and an unusually authentic use of locations.

Lt. Craig (Rodgers), Sgt. Burnett (Nicholson), and Sgt. Jersey (John Hackett) are on a reconnaissance mission in the days leading up to the 1944 American liberation of the Philippines, to determine General Yamashita's defenses at Lingayen. When they rendezvous with Filipino guerillas they learn that their contact, Miguel, is dead, though new rebel leader Paco (Conrad Maga) isn't exactly forthcoming about the circumstances of Miguel's death or anything else, looking upon his would-be saviors with unexpected suspicion.

Meanwhile Japanese soldiers, having learned of the American landing, threaten to kill one Filipino child for every hour the Americans stay hidden in the jungle. This leads to a bloody battle followed by Paco's mostly unchallenged torture of two Japanese soldiers on behalf of the Americans.

Back Door to Hell recalls another small-scale war movie recently released to DVD, the Roger Corman-produced Battle of Blood Island (1960), which like this wisely eschews big-scale action in favor of a fully-dimensional characters and a vivid and authentic-feeling atmosphere. Though it probably cost less than $100,000 to produce it's clear that everyone involved with the production gave it their all, as if the budgetary restrictions inspired the filmmakers and cast in other ways. The photography, perhaps influenced by a short shooting schedule, is appropriately gritty, while the musical score, which sounds like it was recorded with about six musicians, actually has an air of dread it might otherwise not have had had the filmmakers been able to afford a large orchestra.

The film takes three war movie stereotypes and for the most part succeeds in making them believable with a much more subtle interpretation combined with realistic sounding, mostly sardonic dialogue. Early on Craig, who it's implied is younger and less experienced that the other two, hesitates about shooting a Japanese soldier that's spotted them. Jersey, conversely, has no compunction at all about killing. He may be amoral and racist, but only slightly more so than many another soldier. Jersey, whom pessimistic Burnett calls "Sgt. War," is annoyed, not without justification, that in battle Craig might hesitate again and get all three of them killed.

When Burnett, explains that Craig's "starting to think of Japs as human beings," Jersey is unimpressed. "What's so special about a human being?"

The uneasy relationship the men have with Paco and, later, a Filipino bandito named Ramundo (Johnny Monteiro), is also quite interesting. During the war, in films like Back to Bataan, Filipinos were insufferably noble when they weren't condescendingly regarded as recently Chistianized savages. Here, the Filipinos are more like the farmers in Seven Samurai, concerned that the self-serving Americans will only succeed in getting everyone killed and, in Paco's case, regard them as hypocrites who condemn torture but look the other way "out-sourcing" it to rebels unbound by the Geneva Convention.

There are lots of other interesting touches throughout, such as Craig's clumsy efforts to romance Maria (Annabelle Huggins, possibly the same woman involved a few years later in a landmark kidnapping and rape case), a rebel Craig naively assumes will be swept off her feet by his very presence. Though Huggins is clearly no actress, at least not in English, the subtlety of this scene is impressive.

Rodgers and longtime Nicholson pal Hackett are fine, but the best performances come, not surprisingly, from Nicholson himself as well as Conrad Maga. Both are entirely believable giving understated performances. Nicholson's almost musically delivered derisiveness is on display, little glimmers of his future screen persona, and in one scene where his character acts as a translator during the interrogation of the Japanese prisoners, his (as well as Manga's) Japanese is quite good, obviously well-rehearsed and appropriate for the character's ability.

(The actor playing the Japanese captain is clearly not Japanese, however, and the soldiers' uniforms only vaguely look like those used by the Japanese at the time.)

Hellman's direction is intimate and edgy. He uses a lot of hand-held camera, panning and tracking shots to keep things moving, sticking close to the actors so that the effect is much like tagging along with them through the thick Philippine jungle. He's not showy, just effective. During the interrogation, for instance, Hellman shoots from the prisoners' low angle of view, looking up, and the camera slowly pans around 360-degrees sizing up the interrogators against the harsh light of day with stark clouds in the background.

Hellman seems to have shot a lot of coverage, but chose to edit things tightly, which may account for its very short (just 69 minutes) running time, well below what was in 1964 considered the minimum length of even the lower-half of a double bill. A slightly longer running time (75 minutes) is listed in some sources, but this may be incorrect, or perhaps the film was expanded for television. Even at 69 minutes the last few minutes are padded (I'd bet against Hellman's wishes) with several minutes of cheesy, over-emphatic stock music and newsreel footage of the Philippine Invasion. It matches the tone and scope of the rest of the picture not at all.

Video & Audio

Back Door to Hell is presented in an excellent 16:9 widescreen transfer at 1.77:1, approximating its original 1.85:1 release. The title elements are a bit dog-eared, but the rest of the film looks brand new. The original mono track is accompanied by an unimpressive stereo remix, a Spanish track, and optional English and Spanish subtitles.

Extra Features

The only supplement is a spoiler-filled, 4:3 standard size Trailer in good condition, complete with text and narration.

Parting Thoughts

Back Door to Hell is a nifty little B, short and sweet, engrossing in its characterizations and atmosphere if a bit thin on story. It's a welcome release, especially as it shows the great promise of its director and co-star. Recommended.

** This is one of the first titles to be released by Fox's various low-budget subsidiaries and affiliated companies. Wouldn't it be great if in the coming months they followed this release with such long-lost titles as Flight to Fury, Witchcraft, The Horror of It All, Hand of Death, Curse of the Fly, and The Earth Dies Screaming?

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.

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