DVD Review: Hell (2011)
Review by Eric Lefenfeld
The minor details can be nitpicked, but most post-apocalyptic tales tend to lean in one of two directions: they’re either The Road Warrior or The Road. Similar names, vaguely similar stories, but (literally) a world of differences. On one end, there is the wasteland filled with outsized anti-heroes and colorful villains — warriors forever duking it out and making the end of civilization seem like the rollicking orgy of ultra-violence that we can only hope it would be. The flipside is probably a little closer to the reality of an apocalypse — normal people just trying to make it through to the next day in a world that is far beyond repair and has absolutely no mercy for its slowly dying inhabitants.
This brings us to Hell, the surprisingly assured debut feature from Tim Fehlbaum. The film tries to straddle this post-apocalyptic line, grafting a thriller on to a more intimate tale of survival. Unfortunately, the former ends up canceling out most of the latter.
In 2016, an increase in the sun’s temperature has turned the planet into a scorched husk. Water and food are scarce as survivors squabble over the dwindling resources. If that wasn’t bad enough, overexposure to the blindingly bright ball of fire in the sky is also a constant threat. Even the nights remain partially lit. Marie (Hanna Herzsprung) and the teenaged Leonie (Lisa Vicari) are a pair of sisters who have fallen in with Phillip (Lars Eidinger), a man who is capable enough, but really, his most valuable asset is the car with blacked out windows in which they all travel. It’s an opportunistic arrangement through and through. After a tense showdown over supplies, they’re joined by Tom (Stipe Erceg), the ol’ mysterious stranger who comes into their little circle and immediately shakes things up.
Hell never attempts to reinvent the wheel, but the film coasts quite well on this makeshift family dynamic during its first act. Tom knows more about cars and survival tactics, which immediately gets under Phillip’s skin and threatens his position as de facto leader. Young Leonie is charmed by this roguish stranger as well. This is more than enough setup to let these characters bounce off of each other in a claustrophobic setting, but that is not the story that Hell wants to tell. Eventually, the group falls into a trap and Leonie is kidnapped by another band of survivors, leading to the search and rescue mission that dominates the rest of the film. It is nice to watch Marie’s ascent from co-dependent punching bag to ass-kicking heroine, but this is really the only arc that carries any weight. Most of those character dynamics built into the first act are scuttled to the side in favor of a well-worn horror trope that negates the mounting tension between the two men and leaves Leonie with nothing to do except act as the damsel in distress. The kidnappers never really gel into anything memorable, and mostly familiar story beats are hit as the movie reaches its climax. In the end, we get not an intense character-driven film nor a Mad Max style actioner, but half-formed servings of each.
It’s far from criminal for a film to fall back on a tired storyline if executed well, and this is where Hell truly shines (pun definitely intended). It’ll be interesting to see what Fehlbaum could pull off with a bigger budget because he makes the most of his financial limitations. Massive vistas of burned-out cityscapes or fire storms sweeping across cracked desert ground are nowhere to be found. (Although, if disaster porn empresario Roland Emmerich had a creative hand beyond producing the film, that might not be the case.) Hell operates at a more “on the ground” level. Outside of an opening set piece at a long-since abandoned gas station, Fehlbaum is rarely shooting in locations that look overtly apocalyptic. Simple (but effective) washed-out cinematography during the day is nicely complemented by a never-gets-darker-than-magic-hour eeriness in the nighttime scenes. The world is still recognizable as our own, but these visual flourishes give the mundane settings a palpable sense of loss. It looks like the world we know, but it’s anything but. If anything, this minimal approach is more effective than something bombastic; the world here doesn’t end in a massive earthquake or tidal wave, but rather through a slow rot that can never be put into check.
Hell might never reach the heights of its initial promise, but even as the story starts faltering, it’s never not interesting to watch. Fehlbaum uses his limitations to an advantage, staking out a unique claim in a genre that isn’t exactly in its infancy. That’s definitely saying something.
Hell is available now on Region 1 DVD and Blu-Ray from Arc Entertainment.