Living Hell (DVD)
Starring Hirohito (Battle Royale) Honda, Yoshiko Shiraishi, Rumi (Departure), Kazuo (The Man From The East) Yahsiro
Directed by Shugo Fuiji
Released by Subversive Cinema
When the Girlcreeture and I first saw Living Hell way back at 2001's Fantasia Fest, it was one of those movies that just grabbed us by surprise. The description of it in the Fest guide made it sound like a depraved, demented flick, but we had no idea it'd be so damn funny on top of all that. Years of searching for the film on DVD turned up nothing, until the guys at Subversive Cinema contacted me to let me know they had acquired the U.S. rights for it, and the DVD would be stacked. And stacked it is, but we'll get to that.
The film is about a wheelchair-bound young man, Yasu (Honda), who lives with his father, sister, and brother. They learn that some extended family is suddenly homeless and need a place to stay, so they open their doors to an old woman and her granddaughter. Seemingly harmless, the duo proceeds to torture Yasu in all manner of ways while his brother and sister are at work. Their father is a salesman of sorts and is only home on the weekends, so no one is around to witness the humiliation they put poor Yasu through.
When he tries to tell his siblings about their daily cruelties, his concerns are met with disbelief and a bit of worry, since they're already concerned about Yasu's sanity. Meanwhile a reporter by the name of Mistu (director Fuiji) is investigating the case of an old woman and her granddaughter who, after killing some innocents they were staying with, were locked away. Now it's a few years later and they've escaped, and Mitsu is determined to stop them before they kill again.
Of course we know the old woman and her granddaughter are the same that are torturing Yasu on a daily basis, so a lot of the tension comes from wondering how much longer it is before they take it to the next level. During the course of his investigations, Mitsu uncovers some very strange things about the duo, and along with his partner Ken (Yashiro) he tries try to track down the full story. Only problem is, Ken is also Yasu's brother, and he knows a lot more about what's going on than he leads anyone to believe.
Fuiji, in his feature-length debut, did a great job with the story and characters, given how long he was given to actually make the movie (9 days to shoot, 3 days to edit) and the editing process he had to work with (flatbed, pure analog), it's quite an accomplishment what he was able to pull off.
The film does have its flaws, of course, seeing as how it's a first-time effort made for $100,000 in a short time frame. Some of the dialogue scenes go on in a static shot for far too long, making some the information they contain, while important to the overall story, seem unnecessary. The editing is rough, as well; most scenes just go to black, with the next scene picking up a few seconds later. It can be jolting to watch, but sometimes it actually helps in the overall feel of the film. Still, there is a flair and an obvious love for the genre that's ever-present, and you can't help but think Fuiji could go on to make some more great horror in the future.
A wicked blend of cringes, laughs, and gross-outs, Living Hell is a movie that I'm sure will be embraced by all lovers of the bizarre in this genre of ours.
As far as the look of the DVD goes well, it was shot with a filter to purposely make it look a bit worn, but it's still never looked better. The Subversive team painstakingly corrected every frame of the film to make it look as crisp and clean as possible, and the results speak for themselves. If you need a comparison, look no further than the two trailers for the movie on the disc. The first one is the new trailer created specifically for the DVD; the other (which follows right after the first) is the original. The difference is night and day.
So, like I said, the disc is stacked.
First off, we have a commentary with director Fuiji, which can be somewhat sparse. You can tell he's never done a commentary track before and is a bit unsure of what to say sometimes, but it picks up about halfway through and after that it's pretty steady. You get the feeling he regrets not having more time to work on the movie in order to get it in tip-top shape, but I'm sure he's happy with how good it looks and sounds on this DVD release.
Because Subversive did the smart thing and worked with Fuiji so thoroughly on the DVD, they managed to all of his student films (two from New York, one from L.A., and one, shot after Living Hell, from Money Zansu, an omnibus film series from Japan), all of which do a great job showcasing his evolution as a filmmaker. Once you get to "Dead Money", the latest short, you can see someone with a real eye for lighting and camera work (as well as a wicked sense of humor) that I really hope goes on to do more films, and soon.
There are also some deleted scenes, which are sadly lacking in subtitles, most of which just seem to be extended moments from the existing film. Some crudely drawn storyboards are present, as well as a director's bio that gives a lot of good info on the Fuiji's past and influences. Finally there's a trailer section which features the aforementioned duel Living Hell trailers, as well as one for future Subversive releases; The Witch Who Came From The Sea, the very entertaining Battlefield Baseball (aka Battlefield Stadium), and Gemini.
In closing, after seeing the movie again after all these years, its flaws have become a bit more evident, but the film in and of itself remains as entertaining as I remember. Full of over-the-top acting (done for laughs, trust me), twitch-inducing torture (a tazzer to the nether-regions is one of the worst), and filled out with a demented storyline, Living Hell is just a fun movie above all else. Highly recommended!
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