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2011 | 93 min | R | 1.85:1



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Theatrical release date

 30 November, 2012

Country of origin

 United States



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Hellgate Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, November 23, 2012

“Hellgate” comes from writer/director John Penney, the helmer responsible for the 2006 thriller, “Zyzzyx Rd,” which holds the distinction of being the lowest-grossing movie of all time. Ouch. Returning to screens with a more marketable premise and pronounceable title, Penney develops a “Ghost Whisperer” riff with “Hellgate,” showering the viewer with images of bloodied demons, overly emotive actors, and supernatural happenings, molded into a strangely lifeless tale of alternate worlds and survivor guilt. Made cheaply and formulaically, the feature’s only real asset is its Thai locations, which provide the picture with personality and atmosphere Penney doesn’t bring to the writing.

Returning to Thailand with his wife and son, Jeff (Carey Elwes) is set to spend a holiday with his in-laws, eager to revisit a land where he once romanced his beloved spouse. On the way to their hotel, the family is struck by an oncoming car, killing the woman and child, while Jeff is left to linger for weeks in a coma. Awakening to the sight of his nurse, Choi (Ploy Jindachote), Jeff is devastated to hear about his loss, with his recuperation period extended due to his crippling grief. Also troubling the man are mysterious visions of dead people, most revealing themselves in horrifying stages of distress, who ache to communicate with the widower. Failing to grasp his powers of ghostly connection, Jeff trusts Choi to help him comprehend his gifts, taking him to the private sanctum of Warren (William Hurt), a healer who knows exactly what the broken man is experiencing. Learning his soul has split in two after the accident, with one half trapped in another dimension ruled by cannibalistic demons, Jeff prepares to realign his spirit by traveling into the deep jungle, enter a magical portal, and put his deceased family’s suffering to rest.

Indeed, Jeff does see dead people. But these are not just any old ghosts, these poltergeists are under extreme stress, caught in a haunted limbo after their traumatic exits, reaching out to Jeff as one of their own. Penney has a germ of an idea with “Hellgate” (shot under the more appropriate title “Shadows”), but lacks the experience to take a well-worn premise and shape something truly haunting out the familiar parts. The picture seems primarily interested in the psychological split of trauma, imagining grief as a realm of torment, literalizing the jump between worlds with the invention of a magical door that allows those brave enough to enter the evil realm, with hopes to salvage their existence by confronting their woe.

Had it elected a more cerebral route of spiritual inspection, the movie might’ve been able to communicate its thoughts and manufacture a quest for Jeff that’s endowed with vulnerability and pure heartache, tracing the steps of a shattered man who finds eternal damnation with his deceased family an appealing option. Instead, we have “Hellgate,” a film of continuous cheap scares that Penney proudly orchestrates, desperate to maintain a horror mood to material that pulls in the direction of melodrama. Ghosts lunge toward the camera as Jeff comprehends his position as a man of two worlds, while the feared demons of sorrowland are creatures of various shapes and sizes, dipped in blood with the precision of a cherry Dilly Bar. “Hellgate” is out to spook its audience, yet these chills are disappointingly routine, with any student of the genre two steps ahead of Penney’s imagination at all times.

Also hurting the movie’s overall impact is Elwes in the leading role. An actor of limited dramatic range, Elwes overplays his time as a haunted man, unable to roll his broad expressions of fear into a cohesive articulation of possible insanity. Jeff is supposed to be destroyed by these events. Elwes plays him constipated.

Matters improve for “Hellgate” once Hurt joins the festivities, though the actor has difficulty disguising his disregard for the script. Obviously, the lure of a Thailand vacation was too much to resist, yet Hurt manages to sell the silliness of the third act, where Jeff finally steps into the beyond, finding a loosely defined netherworld on the other side of a jungle doorway. Actually, “Hellgate” is nothing but silliness, yet there’s potential baked into the foundation of the story that suggests a more profound approach was there for the taking, finding Penney passing on the challenge to make a trivial horror film.

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