Jeffrey's Hell

Jeffrey’s Hell (2024)

Jeffrey’s Hell seen at Panic Fest 2024 

“So, the Mars story,” says filmmaker Aaron Irons at the beginning of Jeffrey’s Hell, in a monochrome to-camera piece that a caption reveals was recorded in 17th Sept, 2020. The Mars story dates back to a decade earlier than that, when Irons, fresh out of college, submitted an application to the Mars One company to be part of the first manned mission to Mars, and to his surprise was immediately accepted. This confronted Irons concretely with the idea of a one-way trip that would require his saying goodbye to “all my friends and family, everyone I knew” – and made him realise that this bothered him less than he might have imagined (“it was sort of a form of a passive, indirect form of suicide in a way… I realised I wasn’t happy, I was lonely, and I didn’t know what I was doing with my life”).

As Irons would quickly discover, the Mars One programme was a scam – but nonetheless, on 22nd May, 2023, the filmmaker did disappear permanently from the lives of his wife Ashley and other loved ones after taking a trip to the wilderness area in Monroe County, East Tennessee know as Jeffrey’s Hell where he had shot his previous horror feature Chest (2022). The first half of Jeffrey’s Hell comprises interviews with the cast and crew of Chest discussing how Irons had been planning to make “a documentary, sequel-y thing to Chest” in which he would look for the cave associated with the legend of Ebeneezer Jeffrey (who also vanished in the area in the 1920s while out looking for his missing dogs), and shows footage from Irons’ camera found in the area in which Irons is last seen approaching a cave. Despite the fact that its precise coordinates were sent to Irons in a documented e-mail from a stranger, the cave was unable to be located subsequent to his disappearance. The second half of the film purports to be further found footage which Irons shot in the cave, and which appears bizarrely to have fallen out of the sky into the middle of a field at a farm on the other side of the world in Eriswil, Switzerland (!).

Irons’ recorded introduction is the key to the film. For Jeffrey’s Hell is, like Irons’ Mars story, a tale of disappearance and desolation, even if Irons’ final solo journey is to to take him down beneath the earth rather than up to the heavens (although there is, ultimately, an unhinged element of ascent too). And it is also a scam. Even Irons’ friends can see the resemblance of his new investigation to his previous feature, and wonder aloud if he might just be pranking them. Actor Marissa Kaye says she thought it was “probably some kind of PR stunt, maybe for his new project”. Actor Ted Welch agrees: “I thought it was made up, I thought it was some kind of hoax, because the dude loves found footage movies“. Actor Jasson Cring thinks Irons’ disappearance “seemed staged”. Meanwhile, actor Jessejames Locorierre says he had understood that Irons was working on “a sequel to Chest or a documentary”, and producer Josh Croft suggests that Irons was “creating a bonus feature for the Chest  DVDs that would explore, kind of in a documentary style, the real legend of Jeffrey’s Hell… a good companion piece to the movie.”  

Jeffrey’s Hell itself is in fact all those things – “kind of a documentary” in that it is a mockumentary, in fact written, directed and edited by its star Irons (who is very much alive and with us) and, like his previous feature, weaving south Appalachian mythology into modern, mannered horror. It follows the now well-trodden found footage template established by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999): a first act of interviews establishing local legend and lore, a second act of a quest that becomes increasingly disorienting for filmmaker and viewer alike, and a third act of deep, unsettling irrationality. There is sophisticated humour too. For the interviews given by the cast of Chest also serve as an ironic metacommentary on the film itself. Their claims that they could not possibly appear in a sequel given that their characters were all killed off in the first film are belied precisely by their presence once more before the camera here. Meanwhile, local ranger Bruce Hodge says of the disappearing cave: “It kind of feels like a trick is being played. Like the footage is being pieced together or spliced together. It was all very strange and something wasn’t adding up.” Hodge is not wrong – for he is himself a fiction (a character played by Hunter Redfern), his own interviews cut together with those from Irons’ actual cast and crew (playing themselves). 

Yet beneath the surface wit lurk darker, graver themes. Jeffrey’s Hell certainly draws on Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005) for its subterranean setting, which, in all its literal groundedness, gradually becomes the claustrophobic primal space for a psychological journey. For this is the story of one man descending deeper and deeper into his own stagnation and solitude, struggling to find a way out and through. Like any midlife crisis or mental breakdown, it defies logic, leaving only melancholy, mystery and mortal terror in its wake. For it will turn out that Jeffrey’s Hell is also Irons’ – an existential interzone located more in the mind than on a map, which this film lets us too explore and perhaps even acknowledge as a place of depression and despair where any and every soul can at times become untethered from reality and profoundly lost. 

strap: Aaron Irons’ mockumentary speleological psychodrama finds its lost subject caught between a rock and a hard place

© Anton Bitel