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Living Hell

Subversive Cinema // Unrated // July 27, 2004
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Pokerindustries]

Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted July 18, 2004 | E-mail the Author
Shugo Fujii's Living Hell (2000) is a low budget horror film that was made in nine days for around $100,000. By no means great, for a film made in nine days, it is better than you would think.

Yasu is a wheelchair bound twenty-two year old living with his father, sister, and brother. His condition is mental, and his fragile constitution is put to a very extreme test when two relatives move in, an old, seemingly senile, woman, Chiyo, and her mute, anorexic looking granddaughter Yuki. For some reason, at night and during the day while the others are gone, Chiyo and Yuki begin to torture Yasu. His family assumes that Yasu's stories are part of his mental state. Unbeknownst to Yasu, while he suffers at the duo's hands, a tabloid reporter is tracking the strange case of a murderous old woman and her granddaughter, a twisted tale involving siamese twins, a mad doctor, and the lineage of a family gone mad.

While the packaging uses The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a suitable comparison, I think Living Hell has more similarities with DePalma's Sisters and Polanski's Repulsion, not to mention an ending that obviously echo's the classic twisteroo from Psycho. Rough? In need of refinement? Cheap? Sure. But, horror is tricky, and I've seen genre films with five times the budget and filming schedule that weren't half as good. You cannot help but factor that into your thinking. It is passable b-fare with a few neat little moments that should be interesting for the more forgiving b-horror fans out there.

Living Hell has an exaggerated style, giallo color scheme, extreme fish eye camera lenses, dramatic music cues, and some severe overacting. One of the pitfalls that often occurs when directors put a surreal stylistic edge on their horror film is a lack of characterization. Things move pretty briskly and, aside from his worried face and wheelchair bound status, you never really feel any depth to Yasu. If he would have been humanized more, you would actually care about his predicament, but as it is, the movie would rather get on with the torture and bog itself down explaining its muddled premise.

Probably due to budgetary reasons, some of the torture is left to the imagination and kept to pretty simple shock stuff ("What's in the covered dinner dish? - Oh no, it's my parakeet!") . Yasu gets a taser to the genitals, pliers to his teeth, turned into a human dartboard, pushed into traffic, fed cockroaches and, as far as viewers are concerned, his plight might as well be the same as Wile E. Coyote's. Call me a sicko, but I could have actually done with some more graphic torture. With its cartoonish style, committing to even more sleaze and getting more down and dirty would be fine because the film wasn't aiming for realism anyway.

The films better moments occur early on with poor Yasu trapped in the house and the mystery intact. The film limps along in the final third with a bunch of nonsense explanations and a finale that falls apart with bad, bad, bad psycho acting (Honestly, what modern acting school teaches that a functioning psycho goes from seeming perfectly normal to excessive crazy-face mannerisms and twitchy body?) Still, you can tell just from the editing that film was a rushed production, and, even if the sum total of the film is sloppy, the amount of inspired creepy bits are very admirable. And, I'm a bit of a sucker for any film with dialogue like, "It was their very craziness that makes them so intelligent."

The DVD: Subversive Cinema

Picture: Non-anamorphic Wide-screen. Taking into account its limitations, you have to be a little kind to the rough image. Sure, it isn't anamorphic, but it was most likely never intended for theatrical distribution. A little grainy. Sometimes a little soft. The image has a mudded definition, but you do get the sense that, given the source quality, things cannot get a great deal better. I'll give it half a point more, just because it looks better than, for instance, the Tomie transfers.

Sound: Dolby 2.0 Surround, Japanese language with optional English subtitles. The dialogue has some weak production quirks so there are times where it is a bit low compared to the music and fx. The rear channel really pumps up the already too overused score, which is one of the films worst points. The commentary track reveals that the cheesy one-dimensional score was done by the directors friend- some friend, I say.

Extras: Trailers for Living Hell, Gemini, The Witch Who Came From The Sea and Battelfield Baseball--- Storyboards--- Deleted Scenes (6:00). Taken from a workprint, these scenes are in a rough state, and are basic conversation scenes that are, unfortunately, not subtitled.— Extensive Director's Bio— Short Films by director Shugo Fujii. Blackhole (14:26). Grief (17:46). Seasaw Game (28:44). Dead Money (19:42). The first two are black and white silent films that (and I don't mean this in a bad way) have a student film stink to them. Seasaw Game was his student thesis film. Dead Money was part of an anthology series.— Commentary by director Shugo Fujii. Despite a substantial education in the US, Shugo Fujii has shaky command of English and has a habit of dropping his articles. Unfortunately this is the case where a moderator/second person on the commentary was greatly needed. There are very long moments where Fujii flat out forgets to talk which, combined with his unsure command of the language, makes for a very boring track. After a long pause he actually says, somewhat begrudgingly, "Well, anyway, the film never stops, so I have to keep on talking."

Conclusion: New kids on the block Subversive Cinema do a good job with iffy material and this transfer should go a long way towards putting them on cult film fans radar. With the feature and the shorts you basically get the sum total of Shugo Fujii's directorial work. Worth a casual purchase for the curious Japanese horror fan, Living Hell is best reserved as a rental for the average horror viewer.






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