Living Hell Review
'Living Hell' dubs itself 'A Japanese Chainsaw Massacre' which is something of a lie as there isn't one chainsaw in the whole film. There's torture by stun gun, to be sure, but no chainsaw. There are similarities between the films, but you won't read about them here, as that would spoil it. The story is another variation on the 'strange invader' type film wherein a stranger enters a family unit and causes all sorts of mayhem. The stranger in this case is an elderly woman, Chiyo, and her mysterious granddaughter, Yuji, who might, or might not, be responsible for the gruesome murders that open the film. Once installed in the family home, the pair turn their attentions to Yasu, a wheelchair bound teenager.
Director, Shugo Fujii, is clearly influenced by the work of American and Italian directors such as Brian De Palma, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. He's taken a fairly simple story and loaded every frame with a magnificent sense of quiet menace. There is very little gore in the film, despite the packaging, but Fujii can make you squirm at a shot of the yolk of a fried egg being pierced so you won't really notice the lack of special effect footage. It's very violent, but most of the violence takes place off-camera and, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you imagine you see a lot more than is actually being shown. It's probably much to do with the budget restraints as much as anything else, but it takes skill to accomplish this, and Fujii is clearly a very skilled director.
The film is loaded with little signature shots that stand out, such as a door being opened filmed from directly underneath, and Fujii even makes the location work seem horribly claustrophobic. A case in point is a scene where Yasu is taken for a ride in his wheelchair by Yuji - Fujii shoots low down, seldom straying higher than the actors' faces and this gives the scene a closed-off, clammy feeling. He's very good at long, slow zoom shots as well - several scenes take minutes to arrive at the close-up. All of this adds up to a marvellous, slow burning tension that builds scene-by-scene until it totally boils over at the climax into out and out mayhem.
That said, this isn't a perfect film. There are times when Fujii goes a little over the top, such as at the climax. The plot sort of hangs together by a thread at times as well, though there is a good little twist at the end, which might seem obvious but actually isn't, and might well demand you take another look at the film. Performances throughout are good, if a little hammy at times, but given the genre, this isn't likely to be a problem. This is a quirky, interesting little film that lovers of horror would do well to take a look at. A special mention must go to Koji Tabuchi who has created a wonderful score that's reminiscent of the Fulci or Argento films of old. Melodramatic and about as over the top as you can imagine. It's simply wonderful and compliments Fujii's carefully constructed images no end. Highly recommended.
Picture Quality is, in a word, terrible. For a start, it's non-anamorphic NTSC, so that's put a lot of people off already, but add to that the fact that there's artefacts all over the screen, juddering and all sort of nastiness that you wouldn't expect to find these days. There's no print damage, but there are times when it's hard to tell. It's very soft as well, and riddled with grain. Is there anything good to say? Well, colours are bright but that's about it. By all accounts, it was difficult enough to get hold of a print in the first place, so points should be awarded for that, but don't expect quality here.
Sound fairs slightly better. It's only stereo but it's loud and clear and does its job well enough.
We do quite well for extras, though. First up, there's some short films from the director which vary in length and quality - Dead Money (19min, colour, 1:85.1), Grief (17min, b/w, 4.3), Black Hole (14min, Super8) and Seesaw Game (28min, b/w, 4.3). Of these, Dead Money is the most professional but all are worthy of your attention for they show Fujii learning to use some of the techniques he goes on to utilize in the main feature. An interesting and worthwhile feature, some of the films are, of course, more accomplished than others but all are worth seeing at least once. ‘Dead Money’ in particular.
There's also a Directors Commentary in which Shugo Fujii talks us through the making of the film. He's interesting and funny and your attention won't wander. He's very frank about which films he's stolen things from and the answers might well sometimes surprise you.
The Deleted Scenes aren't really worth watching. There's only six minutes worth and they're of such low quality that it's hard to see what's going on. They look like they're sourced from a bootleg VHS and considering they're time-coded, probably were.
You also get some Trailers from upcoming Subversive Cinema releases - as well as the trailer for Living Hell you get Battlefield Baseball/Stadium, Gemini and The Witch Who Came In From The Sea.
The odds and ends that make up the rest of the disc are novelties, more than anything else. The entire film is storyboarded for your pleasure, which has some interest for aspiring film makers if nobody else and there's a short, four screen biography of the director. There's also a page detailing the DVD Credits, so we know exactly who to blame for the poor transfer.
If you spent your misguided youth watching tenth generation bootleg VHS copies of House By The Cemetery, Inferno and The Beyond, then this film is thoroughly recommended as you will probably forgive the picture quality and can pretend you bought it through the classified ads of Samhain instead of Play.com or wherever. It's a lovely, low budget slice of horror that's directed with real style and skill. It warrants at least two watches and will probably stand up to a lot more. There's a good, if not thrilling, selection of extras; it's excellent to have Shugo Fujii's short films on here and this would be a nice package if it was just those, but that commentary is well worth a listen as well. The picture quality will be an issue for many, though, but it would be a crying shame to miss something this good simply because of that.