While I don’t want to be unkind to writer/director John Penney for his film, Hellgate (originally titled Shadows), I feel like you have to call a spade a spade. The film utilizes utterly beautiful settings in and around Thailand and striking creature/makeup effects in the latter stages of the film but sags, struggles and suffers under the weight of very well-worn plot devices, visuals and underwhelming writing.
The story starts with Jeff Matthews (Cary Elwes), a businessman of some kind of other, who arrives in Thailand to meet his wife and son. During the drive from the airport, they are involved in a car crash and only he survives. This all happens really quickly and Jeff is then fast forwarded into a hospital and a coma. He soon awakes to find he is being cared after by a nurse who is trained much more with end of life/hospice care and is thrown completely off-balance by his waking up. We’re given the requisite revealing of the outcome of the crash, his great struggles to walk etc and the revelation that he doesn’t feel anything emotionally for what happened.
Not soon after, Jeff begins to see terrifying(*) visions of people suffering untimely deaths in and around the hospital and in the street. These visions initially make it seem like he is crazy but very quickly they are treated not too much more unusually then someone needing to pick up milk from the store. His frustration and fear surrounding these visions leads him to seek out help and to an initial attempt by an old mystic lady to figure out what is happening. That doesn’t work and the visions continue. This takes him to an audience with an oddball burnout mystic surfer type of fellow, Warren Mills (played by William Hurt) who after some wistful pouting agrees to help Jeff to sort out the issue and stop the visions through a journey to the bowels of ancient…okay, I’m going to stop myself there.
I placed the (*) above because the visions Jeff sees are about as standard as one could possibly imagine. The twitchy/funny walk ones are represented, the flash between a normal-looking person to a bloodied one are here too – really any visual you could associate with the wide breadth of Asian ghost films are here in full force. Outside of a slight jump from a sound spike in one scene, none of these are remotely scary. Not even a little bit. I felt like I was watching an SNL sketch they’d overrun for the 10th time – you know the setup, you know the jokes. Further, every vision is accompanied by an odd, high-pitched tone that warns of the impending spookiness to come. So instead of cashing in on a cheap jump scare here or there, you know Jeff will come face to face with something or other and to expect it. This ‘sound vehicle’ as it were robs those scenes of any tension or dread.
Apart from that issue, the writing is relatively sub-par. The dialogue feels stilted and odd most of the time and doesn’t feel motivated by what is actually going on as if the story and the script are at odds with one another. This type of thing is very distracting and takes you out of what is happening and out of the story as a whole. Especially considering the relative quality of the two primary actors and a few supporting ones, this seemingly flat writing seems almost criminal.
I will say that there are a few bright spots in the film: as I mentioned at the onset, the locations are simply stunning to look at. Really lovely and otherworldly at times. Also, toward the latter parts of the film we’re introduced full-faced (versus suggestions earlier on) to a dangerous and genuinely freaky creature-type of thing that is quite solid in its design and presence and threat to our protagonists. In fact, the last 20-30 minutes of the film are pretty good all things considered and I kept saying over and over to myself that if the whole affair was like that, it’d be a much stronger film.
But, when it all comes down to it, 20-30 minutes do not a film make and so Hellgate doesn’t feel like a completed or well thought out idea. It is a shame because the middle world/ghost thing is actually kind of interesting or would be in this film had it been handled better.