Hell has always been popular cinematic fodder. Italian strongman Maciste has conquered it (twice, at least), Claude Rains has managed it, and Nollywood has done its best to make a basement look like it (see Die Danger Die Die Kill’s review of 666: Beware! The End is At Hand). Still, when it comes to off-the-wall interpretations of the subject the countries of Asia have something of a monopoly. That all seems to have begun with the inimitable Nobuo Nakagawa (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan — reviewed on Teleport City here, and WtF-Film here), who persevered against a studio in a death spiral to produce Jigoku, an avant garde guignol masterpiece and perhaps the quintessential “hell” movie. Twenty years later acclaimed Nikkatsu roman porno director Tatsumi Kumashiro paid his respects to that film with The Inferno, a lavish Toei epic that matched Kumashiro’s own experimental flair with gobs of big studio production value.
More or less ignored in the West and relatively obscure even in its native Japan, where it only reached DVD in 2012, Kumashiro’s The Inferno had its modest impact just the same. One man who was clearly watching was veteran Taiwanese director Law Chi (The Crippled Masters), who decided to follow up the Japanese film with a pair of unhinged “hell” movies all his own. 1981’s Ten Courts of Hades was the first, and seems to have been called into existence solely to take advantage of all the money Toei funneled into The Inferno‘s effects production. Shots from that film are appropriated early and often for Chi’s own, as is John Barry’s theme to Star Crash, which lends a questionable overtone of romance to Ten Courts of Hades‘ under-financed tortures of hell.
While I could find no evidence that the film ever played elsewhere, Chi’s religio-fantasy schlock must have sold well enough to audiences at home. The following year the director would reunite with several of Ten Courts of Hades‘ cast as well as production designer Ng Hon-Leung (Haunted House Elf, reviewed on TarsTarkas.net) to make yet another “hell” picture. Chi’s new film would boast (slightly) higher production values and a more exciting action-oriented narrative, and lose the ill-gotten stock footage that marred Hades’ more memorable passages. It would even get an official English alternate title — The Hell.
The Hell begins humbly enough, with a heavenly being (the subtitles just refer to her as “the Bodhisattva”) descending from the sky on a rainbow to speak with one of the guardians of Hades. Having helped him to “win (his) reputation in the world”, the Bodhissatva wants him to return the favor, and help the wandering young Yan Shyh-shean (Sek Fung, of 13 Worms and The Zodiac Fighters) on his noble quest through the underworld. Shyh-shean isn’t strictly on the hunt for Hell, even if the fates have already decided that he should find it. He is instead fulfilling his “filial duty” in searching the world for his long lost parents, that he might thank them for the sacrifices they made to give him a good life. Disaster strikes his expedition early, however, when bandits attack Shyh-shean and his wife as they travel on horseback. The young woman is killed, and Shyh-shean sent rolling down a hill that leads straight to Fengdu City — a ghost metropolis, and the gateway to hell!
There, lost and hungry, he is taken in by a humble and faithful elderly gentleman and his wife (the latter the Bodhisattva in disguise). Shyh-shean receives as much food and shelter and kindness as a bum in Fengdu City could ever expect, but the woeful screams he hears at night prevent him from keeping still for long. After all, some of them are plaintive cries of, “Shyh-shean! Shyh-shean!” In complete contradiction of the wishes of his hosts, who order that he stay put once the sun has set, Shyh-shean braves the other-worldy nightlife of Fengdu and stumbles upon something horrible: A horde of wayward spirits being corralled by pitchfork-wielding demons and their master, the soul-eating Godzilla-sized Master Ghost! All bets are off when Shyh-shean finds his wife among the tormented. He rescues her from the clutches of the demon minions, but their flight from the ghastly Master sets them wandering the very depths of Hades.
From here the torments Shyh-shean and his ghost wife endure double as critiques of social ills and vices, for the most part at least. Early on the pair must cross a bubbling, venomous river reserved for those who peddled and abused illicit drugs. Later they are impaled on sheets of spikes, guillotined, disemboweled with hooks, and clobbered with stones in a hell for bankers and loan sharks who profited from human suffering on Earth. Sex murderers, rapists, and human traffickers are hung and burned, and their throats cut over and over. The message is as obvious as it possibly could be (Don’t be a prick!), and punctuated with reasonably effective low-tech effects that doubtless resonated with any of the true believers in the audience.
Elsewhere The Hell is a little less traditional, at least in so far as “hell” movies are concerned. Midway through his flight Shyh-shean comes face to face with a gargantuan man-eating snake (or rather a toy-sized rubber mock-up enlarged through some dubious optical trickery), previously seen devouring some anonymous sinners. In true Odyssean fashion Shyh-shean pokes the critter in the eye with a stick and goes about his business.
Though ostensibly still about Shyh-shean and his search for his dear old folks, the Hades-bound sequences of The Hell (which make up roughly half the film) get most of their dramatic impetus from the frequent appearances of the aforementioned Master Ghost, a 100 foot high demon with ping-pong ball eyes, gross tufts of frizzy orange hair, and a penchant for eating those who dare to tread upon his territory. The Master pursues Shyh-shean and company throughout their underworld adventure, and serves as the unlikely thread that holds the whole picture together. He even saves our heroes at one point, his angry hunger getting the better of his priorities. When the Master sees a gaggle of sex fiends loose and battling with Shyh-shean he just can’t resist making a snack of them, and snatches a few up, plucks off their legs, and leisurely chomps them down! It’s all ludicrously portrayed of course, basically just a man in papier mache mask pretending to eat some poor sods with the assistance of some lamentable optical effects, but the crudity of it all comes together with the dreadfulness of the concept and still sets me squirming. The fear of being eaten runs deep.
After all that came before it the conclusion to The Hell can’t help but feel a little anti-climactic. Shyh-shean and his wife reach the gateway out of hell only to realize that the ghost must stay where she is — she’s dead, after all, and has to pay for her past transgressions with the rest of them. A demon promptly decapitates her to drive home the point. Afterwards the Bodhisattva appears one final time, letting Shyh-shean know that his parents are dead, but that they’re whittling away the afterlife in heaven as opposed to hell (d’oh!). He’s advised that life is precious, and to use his “god-given abilities” to live the rest of his in an honest, sincere fashion. The Bodhisattva heads back up a rainbow into heaven, and someone cues up Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire while a happy montage of trees and goats plays. The Hell, indeed.
While I’m sure that there are bootleg VCD or DVD copies of this one kicking around somewhere (I didn’t find any in my brief search, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there), I doubt there’s much use in tracking them down. Existing copies are in a terrible state, and the film can be found streaming free online provided you can subvert a country restriction or two. It’s certainly worth the effort, particularly for Taiwanese fantasy aficionados. One wishes more movies had a malicious googly-eyed hell-ogre to hold them together.