Reviewed by The Foywonder
Starring Johnathan Schaech, Erica Leerhsen, James McDaniel, Jason Wiles, Dylan Kenin
Written & Directed by Richard Jeffries
Living Hell is something of a throwback to sci-fi monster movies of old like the original Blob and the decidedly non-monstrous The Monolith Monsters. We have an infectious lifeform spreading like wildfire after being inadvertently unleashed and the good guys have to use their scientific wits to stop it from growing, spreading and overtaking the landscape before the military is forced to take drastic measures, which in movies such as this means dropping a nuke on a town full of innocent people trying to stay alive. The hero also proves to be the key to defeating the deadly organism because there’s something in his genetic make-up that makes him immune to its lethal effects. Suffice to say, not a whole lot of originality at work here.
Jonathan Schaech (The Forsaken, Splendor) does his usual indie cred sadsack routine playing tormented schoolteacher Frank Sears. As a kid his half-crazed mom warned him one night that something horrible was buried below a nearby army base in a specially numbered secret underground section. She repeatedly told him the secret section numbers, insisting that he never forget them and to make certain whatever’s down there never gets found. To make absolute certainty he never forgets, she goes so far as to carve those numbers into that palms of his hands with a knife. Then he got to watch as mom gunned down dad before turning the gun on herself. Those numerical scars forever scarred into his skin, adult Frank is an emotional wreck upon hearing that the base is set to be closed and sets out to make sure that whatever is down there stays down there.
We’re actually supposed to believe Frank Sears was born in 1959. I missed the first four minutes of the movie so unless I missed a graphic explaining all of this is supposed to be taking place prior to the year 2000 I find it very hard to believe that they expect us to believe Jonathan Schaech is playing a guy supposedly pushing 50.
After his requests to meet with the commanding officer are repeatedly turned down, he’ll crash and get arrested, yet his arrest nets him the meeting he wanted with the base commander. The bitter irony being that if it hadn’t been for his showing up at the base to tell them his crazy tale nobody working to close down the base would have sought out this secret chamber and unleashed what was locked away within; it would have just been sealed in concrete with the rest of the underground area for generations to come.
Now whatever it is is loose and spreading rapidly like some sort of living virus. Kind of hard to describe this lifeform other than to say it’s a serpentine malignancy that sort of looks like tree roots slithering along in a snake-like manner, fatally infecting – sometimes grabbing – everyone and everything it comes across. We come to find out the organism feeds off light and other forms of energy, so even shooting at it or trying to burn it only makes it grow and spread faster. It doesn’t help that the computer effects used to visualize these vein-like tendrils look like CGI and I mean that less in the sense that the CGI is poorly done than I do in the sense that the threat here is just a bunch of computer effects that deface people and property. The impression we’re given is that this is something potentially apocalyptic in scope but any real sense that damnation might be at hand just isn’t there. I kept waiting for someone to scream “Run for your lives! Here come the special effects!”
They have to find some way to destroy it before the sun comes up or else the light from the sun will cause it to spread exponentially across the country. They being Frank and a pretty Army hazmat scientist played by Wrong Turn 2‘s Erica Leerhsen whose husband was amongst the first on the base to fall prey to the deadly organism.
Naturally, for genre movie’s like this set in the American Southwest, when you need advice about something unearthly going on the first thing you need to do is find an old Indian guy. No magical mumbo jumbo this time though; this Native American worked on the Army base long ago with Frank’s father and knows where the truth behind it all is buried. And in this case, the truth is literally buried. While the world sits on the brink of some sort of paranormal holocaust, our potential saviors have to break out the shovels – and then they have to race to find an old film projector.
Once the hazmat hotty helps Sears escape from military custody the two of them find themselves on the run and receiving no help from the Army. That’s thanks to the prerequisite military commander (former “NYPD Blue” co-star James McDaniel) who considers them wanted fugitives and refuses to listen to reason even after they tell him that they’ve figured out a way to destroy the organism because he’s already got his nuking orders and, by George, he wants to nuke that sucker. In other words, he’s one of those characters who’s disagreeable for the sake of being disagreeable because if he wasn’t then there wouldn’t have been as much conflict when coming up with a means by which to destroy the threatening lifeform.
The key to stopping the organism turns out to be in Frank’s blood and once he figures this out he’ll start cutting his hands so that he can physically manhandle its tendrils into submission.
This also leads to a profoundly ludicrous scene where Leerhsen strips down to her bra and panties so that Schaech can rub his blood all over her body to protect her from infection. Ignoring the fact that the amount of his own blood he appeared to coat her with would seemingly be enough to cause him to at the very least start feeling very woozy, the director foolishly chooses to film this scene in a sensual manner making this one of the dopiest attempts at eroticism I’ve seen in quite awhile.
That director (also the film’s writer) is Richard Jeffries, who previously wrote 2003’s equally monotonous Cold Creek Manor. Monotonous really is the apt word to describe Living Hell since there’s nothing especially wrong with the movie other than it just being very clichéd, a bit on the dull side, and the menace is never as menacing as it seems like it ought to be. I really wanted to like the movie more than I did because it’s clearly made from a somewhat better cloth than your typical Sci-Fi Channel premiere, but it’s just too stuffy to be any fun and though it mostly avoids falling into the realm of hokey – erotic bloody body painting not withstanding, the lack of terror and dire urgency leaves the film feeling rather flat.
Living Hell fails to live up to its name in terms of horror, but at least it also fails to live up to its name in terms of horribleness. At best, it’s merely so-so.
2 1/2 out of 5
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