Hellevator - a.k.a. Gusher No Binds Me, a.k.a. The Bottled Fools, a.k.a. Incredibly Creepy People Frolicking Around in a Lift - is the mind spawn of young director Hiroki Yamaguchi, who, prior to his theatrical debut had engaged in low-budget film making toward the end of his teens. 2004’s Hellevator was set to be a school project, but when Yamaguchi earned a spot of acclaim around the festival circuit for Midnight Viscera he was given an opportunity to put together a feature length film. Armed with a couple of Hi-Def cams and a loyal and movie-loving cast and crew who worked under the agreement that they wouldn’t get paid, Yamaguchi set out and spent two years to bring to life his fevered, futuristic vision.
Somewhere in Japan the Surveillance Bureau oversees a multi-levelled city which is linked by a series of points that can only be accessed via elevator transportation. Schoolgirl Luchino (Luchino Fujisaki) is back to attending classes after a long break, but when she’s caught with a cigarette on the way to school she flees the Bureau investigator and sets off in an elevator that runs through two hundred floors. There she runs into a friend and they patiently wait to arrive at their stop. As the elevator makes it way through the city it gradually becomes populated by a strange assortment of citizens, with equally strange names. Things get worse when the elevator makes a stop at a penal colony, where two prisoners - a cannibalistic rapist and a serial bomber - are being escorted to a detention centre where they’re to be executed. When the convicts manage to break free from their chains and kill the guard they then torment the various passengers, which soon escalates into more violence. As the passengers scramble about Luchino’s psychic abilities take over and she soon realises that there’s a lot more to these people than meets the eye.
I have a lot of respect for independent directors; movie making is a long learning process, no matter how well established someone is within the industry. As he mentions in the accompanying interview on this disc Yamaguchi’s ambitions were far greater on paper, but were soon dropped when it was realised that the scope of production would take away from the film’s primary goal. I suspect somewhat that sprawling cityscapes weren’t in the budget either; this isn’t Blade Runner or Brazil, being helmed by a bankable director with the backing of a major studio, but it is a technically impressive piece of work from someone learning the ropes of creating movie magic. Taking clear inspiration from directors such as Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, along with utilising the kinds of cost effective techniques that Sam Raimi, Robert Rodriguez and Guillermo del Toro employed and honed until they became perfected, Yamaguchi puts together a visually sound piece of entertainment. Despite years of futuristic designed movies, and when you think that they’ve done as much as they possibly could and travelled to places that are all too familiar Yamaguchi bypasses his budgetary constraints and creates a cold, post-apocalyptic environment which retains plenty of contemporary gestures and a fresh enough quality. It’s a give and take attitude, a compromise that ultimately works in Hellevator’s favour and as such the myriad of parallels contained within are quite a joy to behold: the elevator being used as major public transportation, giving off the exact same feeling as being stuck on a tedious train journey for hours, complete with conductor and controls; cameras and appliances being held together with primitive means such as wrapped wires and tape; various little bits and pieces that cleverly disguise the fact that the entire set was salvaged from a scrap heap. In addition to this he helms the film very well and presents a suitably cramped location with all manner of inventive angles to prevent as much monotony as possible, whilst injecting a little dark humour in the process.
Likewise, Hellevator is effective enough as a pathological and psychological horror. Although there’s no truly nasty gore effects the crew make do with what options they have. Being confined to such a small environment there’s little but good old fashioned fists. When the two crazy prisoners enter the scene, complete with their Twin Peaks style reverse talking, Yamaguchi heads into violent territory, in which a series of savage beatings and brutal stabbings ensue, some of which go on far too long and certainly create an unsettling vibe. From there he gets a little more ambitious with the introduction of cannibalism and even though he doesn’t show great detail he reveals enough for the effect to work; plenty of blood graces the picture until the elevator walls are practically drenched in the stuff.
Being twenty six years of age at the time of production Yamaguchi had free reign to realize his dream creation, but as we see in Hellevator he hits a few stumbling blocks that he will have to learn from. His main trouble here is stringing together narratives. The film primarily deals with Luchino’s past, in which flashbacks intersect with the main events, as does a mysterious interrogation. It’s a pitfall he hits early on, from which he never seems able to recover, first of all because these moments break the momentum and secondly because he’s also trying to convey a social commentary with a fascist totalitarian-like regime at the heart of the story, while also trying to get across to the viewer his ultimate intent to make a point about conviction. Furthermore, so very little attention has gone toward actually explaining what this world is about. Much of the film remains ambiguous, which is fine as there’s no problem with having the audience make their own minds up, but it isn’t established in enough detail, which is even more remarkable considering in interviews Yamaguchi explains why the society depicted has ended up this way. The twist ending makes the location apparent, but it still leaves the question “why?” As a young man it’s understandable that he would want to address relevant issues, however, there’s very little here that hasn’t been said before and it’s far too convoluted for its own good, with conflicting storylines and an overall lack of focus. Still, he does well to pose questions and highlight some realities when bringing into play the Big Brother element and how you can never be quite so sure who might be keeping tabs on you.
Naturally the cast is mostly made up of unknowns, although we get do a few recognisable faces with Kae Minami and more prominently Shinya Tsukamoto player Masato Tsujioka. The performances vary and for the most part they’re fine, being bogged down by some poorly developed storylines, although Ikuma Saisho puts in a solid turn with an important relationship to the overall tale. Sadly Luchino Fujisaki makes little impression in the role of our protagonist, which isn’t entirely her fault as she’s required to be quite passive throughout, although to be fair most of the characters react in an equally passive manner, as if having two dangerous and unshackled felons sharing an elevator with them is something of a normality, though there are a few energetic turns once things get going.
Hellevator is the fourth in Terra’s Japan series, released as part of their black label.
Hellevator is a heavily processed film. Shot in HD in a ratio of 1.85:1 it has since had a lot of digital manipulations applied. The image is dark and grainy, which is quite nice to a certain extent and Yamaguchi has done a great job in stripping away as much of that flat documentary look as possible; in addition it’s been filtered further which results in a soft look. Most of the film is drowned in green and yellow tints, with brownish hues in the elevator, while the interrogation scenes are suitably blue. These are moods that the director creates well and the DVD handles them adequately. The disc is also another standards conversion; aside from this there is also some low-level noise which creates a few blotchy patches during one or two scenes and a little colour bleeding, but it’s perfectly watchable, also being presented anamorphically.
Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 is our one and only sound option and it’s very active. Yamaguchi’s sound team have created an effective track which makes the most of the odd premise. A techno soundtrack pumps through loud enough to throw things into disarray, while dialogue keeps to a nice audible level and some of the violence is punctuated with hard hitting thrusts.
Optional English subtitles are included and they’re of a nice size and read well, with no grammatical errors to report of.
The theatrical trailer is first up, followed by “Making of Hellevator” (6:09), in which a musical accompaniment backs behind the scenes footage of the film’s production as we see various stages in progress. The most interesting supplemental bonus is an interview with Yamaguchi (12:07) who comes across as being a very nice man, with a humble outlook and a self awareness as to how his film is subject to problems. I really like his honesty here, there’s no egotism, and hopefully he’s learned from the experience and will produce tighter works in future. During the interview he talks about developing the idea, working with his cast and crew and finding locations to shoot, along with citing his influences from manga and film. Cast interviews follow next (13:27) with Luchino Fujisaki starting things off by discussing how she approached her character and working with a - surprisingly - stubborn director. Ikuma Saisho tells us a little about the crew, which was made up of mostly students, as well as talking a little about Yamaguchi and marketing. Keisuke Urushizaki explains the challenges in playing a character that’s far removed from his own personality, with support from a dedicated cast, while Ryosuke Koshiba talks about his expectations up to filming and his character personality. Kae Minami offers her thoughts, also being quick to refer to Yamaguchi as being stubborn, but that it’s a positive thing and Koji Yokokawa looking far from his evil character happily recalls shooting, with a few good laughs. Yuuko Takarada talks about preparing for her role as the conductor by amusingly visiting department stores, along with her opinions on independent cinema and Masato Tsujioka rounds up the interviews with his insights into film making, being one of the more prominent actors in the film, with other experiences to compare to. Finally we get trailers for other Terra releases which include The Suicide Manual: Intermediate Level, Haze, Keizoku: Unsolved Cases, Cursed, Tokyo Psycho, The Suicide Manual and Nor Chor.
Hellevator is a very interesting theatrical debut from a promising young director. It’s certainly flawed and it might not be as clever as it hopes to be, but what it lacks in compelling narrative and overall focus it makes up for with imagination and quirky, often surreal imagery, which might just please horror and science fiction fans who are looking for something a little different to suit their tastes.