The slugline for Living Hell is “A Japanese Chainsaw Massacre”, and it’s easy to draw parallels between the two films. Both were shot on extremely tiny budgets with relatively unknown actors, both involve deranged, bloodthirsty families, and both are pretty good as long as you don’t expect too much of them. Living Hell has some good moments (and a few great ones), but in the end it’s only fair. A pity, because with a tighter script and some relatively minor technical improvements it could have been a grisly little gem. As it stands, it’s an interesting near-miss.
Yasu (Hirohito Honda, whom we last saw in Battle Royale) has spent most of his life in a wheelchair at the mercy of his unsympathetic family. They’re convinced the young man has mental problems, even going so far as to say that his inability to walk is psychological and not physical. With his mother gone, he lives with his father, brother and older sister as a near-prisoner, who deny him access to telephones and only take him outside when they can find a suitable excuse. His only companion is his pet bird, whom his parents can’t stand either. It’s a recipe for misery.
Then come new houseguests in the form of Chiyo and Yuki. Chiyo is a senile old woman whose only question to her new guests is “When’s dinner?” Yuki, her unspeaking and frightened-looking granddaughter, comes off as someone trying out for the role of Sadako from Ringu. They’ve been left homeless after the family they were with was murdered horribly one night, and Dad’s been kind enough to take them in (although, ironically enough, he hardly shows the same level of kindness to his own son). Yasu is instantly uneasy when they set foot into the house, and his unease escalates into stark terror when he hears Yuki speaking telepathically to the old woman. Is Yasu crazy, or is he just picking up signals no one else can detect?
The majority of the movie plays like a revolting version of one of those cartoons where the cat and mouse tear each other to shreds when the humans leave the room. As soon as everyone else is gone, Chiyo and Yuki gang up on Yasu and torment him mercilessly. I lost count of the various horrors they inflict on him — they feed him bugs and worms, murder his bird and serve it to him on a bed of rice, pour gasoline on his crotch, throw corrosive chemicals on him, zap him with a stun gun, tear his teeth out, use him as a human dartboard, and let him scream his head off with no one around to hear. All of this is paralleled with a policeman and a reporter putting various clues together about Yasu’s demented family and coming up with some answers that are even more twisted than one might first expect.
Living Hell was shot in something like two weeks on a microscopic budget, and it shows. It sports one of the most annoying, mood-killing musical scores ever composed (it’s literally something like the same six or seven notes repeated ad nauseam), and a lot of the editing and camerawork is frankly amateurish. But there are some moments that really do work well, as when one of Yasu’s climactic tortures is seen from his POV in a relatively static shot, or a flashback scene in a hospital (?) involving some very unorthodox surgery. The latter is shot in a really striking wide-angle high-contrast black-and-white look that shows up the rest of the movie’s somewhat drab camerawork. The director, Shugo Fujii, directed a number of short films before tackling this as his first full-length feature, and he does a good enough job with his limited resources that I’m curious to see what he does next.
That said, Living Hell is flawed, and the single biggest flaw is in the construction of the story. Too much of the movie’s running time is spent by treading water with Yasu’s tortures — and the end is one of those gratuitous everything-we’ve-seen-was-a-lie twists that I’ve grown very tired of. I wouldn’t dream of saying what it is, and it is far less disappointing than many other similarly-constructed movies (the backstory for the twist is gloriously sick, I admit), but that doesn’t make it any less irritating as a device. After Haute Tension and A Tale of Two Sisters (to say nothing of The Sixth Sense or Memento) and now Living Hell, it’s as if it’s you can no longer make a horror movie without somehow lying to the audience.
Japan’s underground film scene has long been populated with low-to-no-budget horror and fantasy. The god and emperor of such movies has long been Tetsuo, of course, but there are many others that are finally now getting an audience abroad: the sense-battering Rubber’s Lover and 964 Pinocchio, for instance, or truly bizarre stuff like Death Powder or Organ (and, I should add, Tetsuo creator Shinya Tsukamoto’s largely-unseen but visually-amazing Hiruko the Goblin). Living Hell fits fairly well into that tradition, by dint of being a) independently made and b) offensive to conventional sensibilities. It’s a shame it isn’t a better movie, but I suspect the gorehounds who dig everything else I’ve mentioned here won’t feel that much of a drawback.