A Review by Noah Antwiler
After watching Phone, White Noise, and the various Grudge sequels, I haven't been impressed with much in the way of scary movies either domestically or from the Asian market. There's just not much that's new, and it takes a lot to evoke any genuine emotion out of an audience (particularly me) anymore. Most horror now is intentionally campy monster features (Jeepers Creepers) or formulaic teen-slaughter romps exploiting the whore of the month (House of Wax). Living Hell is billed as "The Japanese Chainsaw Massacre." Though I see the connection, it's a bit of a misnomer particularly since chainsaws never make an appearance in this film. Still, I'm intrigued by such bold claims used to promote a movie, and despite my unofficial moratorium on watching Asian horror, I decided to get one more round in. My expectations could not have been lower.
And shocker of all shockers, Living Hell is good. It's very good. And it shouldn't be. It's got almost everything working against it: a cheap score that sounds like it was played on a Casio keyboard, it's shot on poor film stock, the cinematography often frames scenes badly, and the editing is abrupt and sometimes maddeningly choppy. On the other hand, these are the very same reasons Living Hell is endearing and actually works. It's not out of any camp value; it works because the chaotic organization of the film and weird shot compositions ratchet up the tension. Scenes of violence will end suddenly and for no reason, evoking a spontaneous "OH COME ON!!" from you-- not out of annoyance, but because you're absolutely transfixed at what you're watching, and you're FEELING for the characters.
Living Hell centers on the character Yusa, a wheelchair-bound young man living with his older brother and sister. Yusa's an antisocial type who seems to have a lot of personal issues, and they're not helped any at the sudden appearance of Yuki and Chiyo, relatives from out-of-town who (for some reason) have to move in. Right away, Yusa's freaked out, because it's plainly obvious that both Yuki and Chiyo ARE ABSOLUTELY BUGFUCK EVIL!!!
Remember that this is a Japanese horror movie, so it should be about as surprising as the sunrise that Yuki is a horrifyingly skinny young girl with long hair that conceals her face. It's a felony in Japan to have a horror movie without a scary girl who can't see shit. She's a scrawny, terrifying lady with a truly intimidating jaw. She looks like Skeletor with slightly more flesh. Yuki is (apparantly) the granddaughter of Chiyo, an unnaturally pasty sack of wrinkles who looks like the mummy.
Chiyo and Yuki act like complete freaks at all times, saying almost nothing except creepy stuff. They stand side by side unmoving for whole scenes like some weird American Gothic painting. Yusa's the only person who seems to be able to pinpoint the blatantly obvious notion that these two are absolutely diabolical FREAKS. Everyone else in the house just seems to think that Yusa's making it all up, imagining things, or that Chiyo's being senile, and Yuki's just eccentric.
I actually dig this because, in my opinion, REALLY REALLY old people are WAY scarier than kids. Honest! And let me tell you something, this grandma can MOVE when she wants to. Tell me you wouldn't run if some giant old lady was chasing you with a meat cleaver in one hand, and a great bloody handful of nightcrawlers in the other.
It'll drive you crazy wondering why nobody seems to figure out that the two Lords of All Darkness have taken residence in the house. Yusa, because of his disability and because everyone else in the house holds down a steady job is left alone in the house with the gruesome twosome, and then the madness begins. Yuki forcibly takes Yusa out for a stroll in his wheelchair, during which time Chiyo SPRINTS AROUND and fills Yusa's pants with worms. I'm not kidding.
Naturally freaked, Yusa tries to tell people about it, but nobody believes him. Later, Chiyo makes a grisly dinner for Yusa, feeding him his own pet bird on rice. Then they tie him to his bed, shove the bird in his mouth, duct tape his mouth shut, and begin one of the most horrible tortures ever depicted on screen. The Evil Grandma brandishes a stun gun (one of the trademark scares of the film) while The Evil Scrawny Girl soaks his groin in water. Then Grandma takes the stun gun to his soaked nutsack ALL NIGHT LONG.
I mean JESUS.
The next morning, Yusa is of course completely BROKEN. The rest of the family asks him what's wrong, because the two women are acting completely naturally when anyone else is around. Yusa's so mentally snapped that he can't seem to bring himself to speak (not that anyone would believe him anyway). The SECOND that they leave, Grandma springs into action again, and jams the stun gun in Yusa's mouth, electrocuting his gold tooth!!! The entire day is a festival of sadism. The two strap him to a chair, use him as target practice for darts, smash his hands with a ballpine hammer, and systematically rip his back molars out with pliers.
Even when Yusa's sister returns from work and witnesses the aftermath of this horror-- even when she sees Grandma standing calmly beside Yusa who has a bullseye drawn on his chest, a dozen darts sticking out of his torso, his hands crushed, and covered in blood, and her first reaction is to run up to Yusa and shout "What have you been DOING?" as if he did this shit to himself!
(The sister isn't too bright.)
Yusa and his sister don't take the obvious course of action and just run out the front door, of course. Instead they stupidly hole up in Yusa's room. The sister doesn't last long, as Grandma throws her into a SLEEPER HOLD and scalds her to death with a blow dryer!!! I mean-- GOOD LORD-- is that even possible? This is sick!!
Then things get WORSE.
The film soon starts to spiral hopelessly out of control, and the title Living Hell becomes more and more appropriate. It becomes more unreal as time goes on, as if Yusa has actually been locked in some divine punishment, because something this sick could only happen in Hell itself. To recap further would be useless. Suffice to say the rest of the movie will have you scrunched up in sympathy as the tortures continue and the characters are slowly broken mentally and physically. There is one final scare in the movie so grisly I won't even bother explaining it. But I assure you, you *will* be surprised.
The low production values are a blessing and a curse. This is as good as a horror movie gets, especially when its main draw is physical pain and gore. Still, the film could have done with about 15 minutes of time edited out and a bit more research. Re-shoots of a few scenes would also have been nice, as there are a few moments where it's obvious they had to use the raw master shot, or the special effects are frankly terrible. It's still a fun ride, and the DVD features a director's commentary that's worth a listen if you like the movie.