Sunday, July 19, 2009

Umberto Lenzi's The Hell's Gate (1989)

By the time Umberto Lenzi helmed The Hell's Gate in 1989, he had been directing films for nearly thirty years. His filmography prior looks like a timeline of popular Italian genres, both sensational and commercial: Robin Hood, Gladiators, Pirates, Spies, Westerns, Crime, War, Thrillers, Gialli, and of course, Horror. Lenzi is a film maker whose gun is for hire; and occasionally, his work is slick and sublime or clunky and uninspired, but almost always, his work delivers. It is indisputable that Lenzi knows the conventions of the particular genre in which he works, and Lenzi is often a strict adherent to the genre conventions. When he steps outside of the conventions, Lenzi is brilliant: for example, his masterpiece, Nightmare City (1981) is a would-be zombie war film; or his perverse thriller with Carroll Baker, Orgasmo (1969). When Lenzi strictly adheres, he sometimes remains brilliant, for example, his tale of tanned-bodied cave people, Iron Master (1983) but he does often miss the mark. Maurizio (Gaetano Russo) has been living in total darkness in a grotto for seventy-eight days and has set the world record for such inhospitable living. Above ground, Dr. Johns (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) awaits his return within an hour alongside the eager press to begin a series of medical tests on Maurizio to study the effects of the long cave dwelling. Dr. Johns has three assistants: Anna (Barbara Cupisti), Paul (Pietro Genuardi), and Manfred (Lorenzo Majnoni). Chatting with the press, Dr. Johns reveals that his team has watched all of Maurizio's movements via closed-circuit television for the whole duration. What the hell is that? Static. Shit. Anna call off the press and lets don our multi-colored spelunking gear and go down and get the poor bastard. Wait! Enter Laura (Andrea Damiano), a beautiful young scholar, who has been studying the ancient church on the hillside top. Laura is accompanied by the whining Theo (Mario Luzzi). Laura wants to enter the grotto with Dr. Johns and his crew, because she believes the grotto is literally and figuratively linked to the church and wants to explore. Sorry, lady, but this is an emergency. Laura's trump card is an archaeological map of the underground caverns. Okay, lady, you can come but stay out of the way. Enter horror theme: the church atop the hill might have been populated by heretic priests. Dr. Johns and his crew immediately begin looking for Maurizio. Theo wanders off. Laura finds exactly what she is looking for: a crypt. Inside the crypt, Laura discovers a stone tablet with writing in Latin. She pulls her cassette recorder from her satchel and begins translating and transcribing. 7 hundred years ago, 7 monks predicted their return to open the 7 Gates of Hell. In order to open the gates, 7 sacrifices must be made. Dr. Johns and his crew equals four plus Laura and Theo, which makes six, and Maurizio snugly inside the grotto, makes 7. Ain't this a bitch. Laura, having delivered the film's backstory and exposition, gets iced. Theo's aimless wandering leads him inside of a cage that comes crashing down from the cave's ceiling. Theo whines on his walkie-talkie to Dr. Johns. By this time, Dr. Johns and crew have found Maurizio, who lies injured with a broken leg stuck in a rock. How about some morphine, Maurizio? John and Manfred go and help Theo.

John and Manfred, en route to Theo, stumble upon the crypt. John picks up Laura's tape recorder and the duo learn what the text on the wall means. Hey, that would put the 7 monks return in 1991, wouldn't it? What year is it? Maybe, we should tell Dr. Johns. Theo is found in the cage. Damn, Theo is dead. He has been impaled by 7 daggers that fell from the ceiling. Paul and Anna attempt to persuade Dr. Johns that perhaps sinister and supernatural forces are at work, down in the dark depths of the grotto. You people are irrational. This is the twentieth century, and all of this is just coincidence. Famous last words. The Hell's Gate is a film about repetition. Not only is 7 used over and over and over, but so are the caverns. The Hollywood joke about the two cowboys who pass the same rock multiple times on a linear journey comes to complete fruition here. The caverns of the grotto by their look alone would approximately only cover about twenty or so square feet, but with the addition of characters' dialogue, the caverns become labyrinthine and vast. The dialogue is repetitious, as well. For example, when Anna and Paul attempt to persuade the scientific and logical Dr. Johns that maybe the devil's doings are going on, Anna makes her case and then Paul makes his case, not differently but exactly the same. No new approaches, here. So is this annoying? Hell no! Lenzi makes cinema, as best as he can. Lenzi is fully aware that the grotto set design falls short and the dialogue is daft, so he shoots the film with a minimum of wide shots and focuses on the close-ups of the character's faces. It's an attempt to go for the claustrophobic look, and the technique sometimes works. For example, one of the characters gets attacked by spiders and suffers (are you ready?) 7 deadly bites. The sequence is shot tight on the victim's face and closely on the scary arachnids, so close the bristles of the spiders' hairs tingle. Lenzi brings the expected gore scenes, as well. The gore scenes are not Fulci-esque and over-the-top but they are not anemic, either. Lenzi's photography highlights the red hues and effectively masks the shortcomings of the FX with the quick cuts and tight shots. Lenzi's making every veteran shortcut in The Hell's Gate, and I cut him a lot of slack. The script, the acting, and the budget are working against Lenzi the whole time, but he is fighting against the dying of the light. Unfortunately, Lenzi is far from successful, but The Hell's Gate is sometimes b-movie magic from an Italian master.


Emily said...

You know, there's a chance I've never actually seen a Lenzi film in my adult life. I just bumped Nightmare City up in the queue, as I'm guessing it's a better starting point than this one. Thanks as always for the advice!

Mr.LargePackage said...

Laura the archaeologist can teach us an important lesson about life. If you ever find yourself in a scary situation where there is a chance you might die, don't be the person who gives all of the exposition. They always die first, and that is large and in charge.

Matt-suzaka said...

You would enjoy Nightmare City, Emily. I rented it off of Netflix based off Hans' recomendation and I now own the film on DVD.

It has a lot of budgetary limitations, but the film transcends those limitations thanks to Lenzi in the directors chair. Which sounds very similar to how Hans' describes The Hell's Gate in this review.

I have been trying to get more acquainted with Lenzi's films, and I loved Nightmare City, Iron Master, and I think Almost Human is a fantastic crime film. He brings a lot to the table as a director based off the films I have seen and I look forward to seeing The Hell's Gate and many more Lenzi films. Thanks Hans!

Tower Farm said...

I'm with Emily...don't think I've ever actually sat through a Lenzi movie.

Adding this to me Netflix queue now...thanks for the review!


Hans A. said...

Thnx to all of you for reading and commenting. I always appreciate it.

I'm a huge fan of U. Lenzi, prolific and underappreciated. Everyone should see Nightmare City. This one, however, should be saved for as a later Lenzi viewing.:)

Lake said...

Great article, I'll be hunting this one down. Nightmare City is a classic.

If on the off chance someone reads this response, a question - Was Hell's Gate part of the 'Lucio Fulci presents' series? I seem to recall it was but can't find any confirmation online ?