‘Gehenna’: Horror film uses the supernatural to show terrors of colonialism and war
From the poster for "Gehenna."

History itself can be a horror story sometimes. One filled with war, famine, and the genocide of oppressed peoples. Gehenna: Where Death Lives is a horror film that uses the supernatural to reflect on the real life terrors of colonization and war in a chilling story of haunted World War II bunkers and indigenous peoples seeking witnesses to the transgressions of imperialism and murder. It makes for a scary movie that delivers effective thrills and pushes themes that dig a little deeper.

Gehenna was written by well-known special effects artist Hiroshi Katagiri. His 39 film credits in special effects include such titles as Wolverine, Pirates of the Caribbean, Alien v Predator Requiem, Cabin in the Woods, and The Hunger Games. The American-Japanese horror film also serves as Katagiri’s directorial debut. The film stars Lance Henriksen (Aliens), Eva Swan, Simon Phillips, and Justin Gordon, along with the star of the Academy Award-winning movie “The Shape of Water”, Doug Jones.

The plot of Gehenna deals with characters Paulina and Tyler, who work for a real estate development company, visiting the island of Saipan to pick a location for their company’s latest resort. After finding the so-called perfect location—which also happens to be a cursed burial ground according to the locals—they discover a hidden cave on the property and decide to explore it with their small group. The cave reveals a long abandoned Japanese military base dating back to WWII. From there, things take a turn for the worst, as the bunker turns out to be more than what it seemed, leaving the small group on a race against time to escape.

Locating the story on the island of Saipan appears to be a purposeful choice by Katagiri. It is a place where the native population has dealt with conquest for centuries—from the time of Spanish colonization all the way up to WWII. The Spanish formally occupied the island in 1668 with the missionary expedition of Diego Luis de San Vitores. Saipan became a port of call for Spanish and occasional English, Dutch, and French ships in 1670. The native population dropped dramatically due to European-introduced diseases and conflicts over land. The indigenous survivors were forcibly relocated in 1720 to Guam by the Spanish colonizers in order to control and assimilate them.

The island was captured by the Empire of Japan in 1914 during the First World War. In the 1920s, there were strong waves of immigration by ethnic Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese, and Okinawans, resulting in the development of large-scale sugar plantations. In mid-1944, nearly 30,000 Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy troops were based on the island. The Battle of Saipan from June 15 to July 9, 1944 was one of the major campaigns of World War II. It cost the lives of 3,426 Americans, 30,000 Japanese soldiers, and 20,000 Japanese civilian. So Saipan is clearly an island whose history is haunted by death and violence.

This history plays a significant role in the film, as the plotline of the cave and the haunted bunker is interwoven with the real life historical travesties the island has witnessed. The land Paulina and her colleagues want to build on is sacred ground, and it is required that it stay untouched as a monument to the tragedies of history that natives experienced. Of course, Paulina and her colleagues don’t listen. Greed and money drive them forward to disregard the warnings, and that ends up being their undoing.

When first coming upon the movie, and reading the plot synopsis, I was weary that this film would fall into the worn out—and somewhat racist—trope of having it so the people of color, in this case the native population of Saipan, being used as “magical” beings to simply drive the plot forward in another case of the so-called “mysterious other.” Thus leaving only the white characters with any real agency.

We’ve seen one too many so-called scary movies where a mysterious island of brown people is stumbled upon by white protagonists, and in the end it’s up to the white protagonists to win against the brown peoples’ “evil voodoo” or something along those lines. Another extreme example of this overused plot device is the Magical Negro Trope and the Magical Native American Trope. This is where a person of color, usually poor, is shown to have some other worldly magic or wisdom, and their only purpose is to help the white main character.

Gehenna somewhat turns this trope on it’s head. The real evil, or driving force, isn’t the magic of the natives, or the possible curse. The real evil is something way more sinister and tangible, the supernatural only brings it out into the open. It’s always nice when a movie chooses to subvert the sometimes biased status quo of Hollywood themes to force segments of society to take a look at themselves, and their history, in an unflinching way. The film doesn’t knock us over the head with messaging, but the messaging is definitely there.

The movie has solid acting, pacing, and a cool twist at the end. The special effects are great, which is no surprise since Katagiri also worked on that aspect of the film. The look and feel of what should be outright grotesque dead bodies and blood actually take on an almost artistic morbid beauty, which creates a scary enough atmosphere. There are a few times when the screen is a bit too dark, but some space can given considering it’s supposed to be underground and inside a cave.

Overall, this film delivers in horror and good storytelling. The audience will, whether looking for something deeper or not, most likely be satisfied in some capacity with what they get. They’re in store for a wild ride through time that may even spark their curiosity for an impromptu history lesson, as it did with me.

Gehenna: Where Death Lives is in theaters across the U.S. and on VOD Friday, May 4, distributed by Uncork’d Entertainment. The trailer can be seen here.


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.