Gehenna: Where Death Lives (2016)

Gehenna: Where Death Lives first published by SciFiNow

Opening both with a Biblical quote (Matthew 18:9) in which the place name ‘Gehenna’ is used to denote a cursed hell, and with a horrific sequence set in 1670 Saipan, the plot of Gehenna: Where Death Lives is overdetermined by both theological and historical concerns. It unfolds in modern-day Saipan, as a small group of American property developers and their native guide visit a taboo area of the Northern Mariana Island with a view to building a luxury beach resort there. When they find and enter a Japanese war bunker full of corpses, they become trapped in pasts – both personal and local – that they are doomed to repeat. 

When we first meet cameraman Dave (Matthew Edward Hegstrom), he is showing off a recently bought T-shirt inscribed with Japanese letters, and surprised that some local Japanese women laugh at its undermining message (which he cannot read). It is an early sign of how easily cultural appropriation can go wrong, setting the scene for the dangerous claims that these new arrivals will make on the sacred ground that they regard merely as ‘prime real estate’ – in a country that has experienced serial annexation and colonisation by Spain, Japan and the US. 

Bookended with cameos from genre royalty Lance Henriksen to cement its foundations in horror, Gehenna: Where Death Lives is the directorial feature debut of Hiroshi Katagiri, best known for his SFX on films like Looper (2012) and The Cave (2005). Once the characters have entered the shadowy interior of the bunker, they  – and we – are confronted with an endless labyrinth of dark spaces and creepy visions that are the stuff of pure, if thuddingly repetitive, genre. Yet as grieving heroine Paulina (Eva Swan) and the others learn that their planned future extensions of exploitation in Saipan are built on a bloody history of which they are themselves already a part, we enter a system of looping historical paradoxes reminiscent of The Dyatlov Pass Incident (2013)  – and the film’s postcolonial subtext, buried deep underground, comes to the surface.

Strap: Hiroshi Katagiri’s debut traps would-be property developers in a colonial horror.

© Anton Bitel