|Stephen McHattie, a babe-o-licious ghost,|
creepy graveyards, the jaws of hell itself,
Bruce McDonald & Julian Richings in tow,
plus super-cool retro imagery fill the drawers of
Dir. John Geddes
Scr. Tony Burgess
Starring: Stephen McHattie, Siobhan Murphy, Boyd Banks, Julian Richings, Bruce McDonald
Review By Greg Klymkiw
To both the living and perhaps even the dead, old graveyards are as comforting as they are creepy. Screenwriter Tony Burgess seems to understand this better than most and with Hellmouth, he's crafted one of the most deliciously insane horror treats of the new millennium. Superbly and imaginatively directed by John Geddes and delivered to us by Foresight Features, the visionary company of (mad)men from Collingwood, Ontario, this is a first-rate mind-penetrator designed to plunge us deeply into the hallucinogenic properties inherent in Hell itself.
When I was a (relative) kid in the late 70s and early 80s, I programmed a movie theatre devoted almost exclusively to cult and genre films and Hellmouth is exactly the kind of picture I'd have been playing during midnight shows in the 70-year-old 600-seat former-neighbourhood-cinema-turned-Porn-emporium-turned-arthouse in the waste-end of Winnipeg (just round the corner from famed cult director Guy Maddin's boyhood home and his Aunt Lil's beauty salon which eventually became the studio for his first bonafide hit film, Tales from the Gimli Hospital). It's this very personal observation which proves to me, beyond a shadow of any doubt, just how universal Hellmouth is. The narrative is rooted in a strange amalgam of 40s film noir and the controversial early-to-mid-50s William Gaines period of the late, lamented and utterly demented E.C. Comics. In this sense, the madness that is Hellmouth yields a classic horror movie for now and forever.
And lemme tell ya, this ain't nothing to sneeze globs of bloodied snot at.
Charlie Baker (Stephen McHattie) is a tired, old grave-keeper living out his last days before retirement in a long-forgotten graveyard still maintained by a rural municipality with a certain pride in its historical legacy. As the film progresses, however, the legacy goes well beyond its commemorative value. Mr. Whinny (Boyd Banks) is a slimy, local bureaucrat who demands Charlie curtail his retirement plans to preside over an even older graveyard a few miles away. Charlie reminds Whinny that his own days are numbered due to a rare, degenerative brain disease, but the cruel, taunting administrator will have none of it and threatens to fire Charlie if he doesn't do his bidding (and thus flushing the retirement package down the toilet). Bureaucrats are just like that, especially if they work for Satan.
Alas, poor Charlie has little choice in the matter and is forced to make an odyssey across the dark and stormy landscape of this rectum-of-the-world township where he meets the mysterious babe-o-licious Faye (Siobhan Murphy). Swathed in form-fitting white, dark shades and blood-red lipstick, Faye hooks Charlie immediately into her plight and he becomes the unlikeliest knight in shining armour.
Grave-keeper Charlie Baker will, you see, soon do battle with a formidable foe at the very jaws of Hell itself.
Burgess's writing here is not only infused with imagination, but the archetypal characters, hard-boiled dialogue and unexpected turns taken by the tale create a solid coat hanger upon which director Geddes can display the stylish adornments of cool retro-visuals as well as all the eye-popping special visual effects splattering across the screen like so many ocular taste buds.
The mise-en-scene is not unlike the Frank Miller/Robert Rodriguez approach to the world of Sin City, but here, the rich monochrome, dappled occasionally with garish colours, seems even more suited to the genre of horror rather than neo-noir. Geddes guides his superb cast through the minefields of a gothic nightmare with the assured hand of a master, eliciting performances that play the more lurid properties of the characters blessedly straight (McHattie, Banks and Murphy), thus allowing occasional explosions of over-the-top, though never tongue-in-cheek thespian gymnastics from Julian Richings and legendary director Bruce McDonald.
Crypt-Keepers and Grave-Keepers have long been a staple of horror, but usually, they're not treated as characters, but as "hosts" to deliver anthology-styled tales of terror (not unlike the classic Amicus production from the 70s such as Tales from the Crypt). As a feature film, Hellmouth gets to have its cake and eat it too. However, given that Charlie Baker is a living, breathing character, Foresight Features might actually have a property here worth revisiting - either in feature-length prequels, sequels and/or standalone "presents" tales of other grave-keepers. Better yet, there might even be a terrific continuing anthology series for the likes of Starz with Charlie involved week-to-week as an actual participant and storyteller. God knows the creative above-the-liners are more than skilled and up-to-the-challenge and Stephen McHattie, one of the best character actors in the world would be the ideal star.
Just a thought from a middle-aged old exhibitor, film buyer and movie producer . . .
Getting back to my personal rumination of those halcyon days when I programmed cult movies, it's with all respect that I reveal now that Hellmouth is the kind of picture we used to fondly refer to as a "head film". Like the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo), Slava Tsukerman (Liquid Sky), David Lynch (Eraserhead) and so many others during the "Golden" Age of cult cinema, Hellmouth is ideal viewing for those who wish to ingest copious amounts of hallucinogens prior to and during their viewings of the film. That said, like all terrific "head films", the movie itself is plenty hallucinogenic and ultimately requires no added stimulants.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** 4-Stars
Hellmouth enjoyed its World Premiere at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2014 and is being distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada (and its Uncle Sam counterpart Anchor Bay).