The Best Movie Ever | Hell
Hell. Whether you believe in it or not, it’s an indelible aspect of our culture, a place where – literally or figuratively – bad people get what’s coming to them, for all eternity. Stories of the supernatural have been playing with the idea of Hell for centuries, so when the time came to visualize that ongoing nightmare on camera, filmmakers had a lot of material to work with. We’ve had as many interpretations of Hell in cinema as we’ve had depictions of Heaven – heck, probably even more – so picking the very best one is a damned hard thing to do.
But that’s what we asked our critics to do anyway! This week on The Best Movie Ever, we invited our panel of critics – Crave’s William Bibbiani, Legion of Leia’s Witney Seibold and Collider’s Brian Formo – to each present their picks for the best literal interpretation of Hell in movie history. They couldn’t agree on a single thing. Heck, they couldn’t even agree on a single decade. But they’ve all picked some hella good movies.
Check out what they chose, and come back next Wednesday for another highly debatable installment of The Best Movie Ever!
Witney Seibold’s Pick: This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967)
There are few cinematic creations like Coffin Joe. Part Crypt Keeper, part Hammer acolyte, part self-obsessed follower of Nietzsche, Coffin Joe (a.k.a. Zé do Caixão, created by José Mojica Marins) is a gory, nihilistic, Brazilian answer to America’s horror hosts, only taken to a logical (and gloriously depraved) extreme. The character has appeared in about six features, each one more horrifying than the last. Coffin Joe has appeared in films as recently as 2008.
Coffin Joe, however, is no mere shock jockey. As he blares to the high heavens in each of his films, Coffin Joe has elected to devote himself to depravity as a way of proving, defiantly and horrifically the nonexistence of God. If there were a God, he argues, then Joe would be prevented from committing his frequent acts of murder, torture, and cannibalism. Additionally, any thought of compassion or benevolence is seen as mental illness to Coffin Joe. There are numerable rants in his films about his empirical philosophy, cribbed largely from the Marquis de Sade. In one film, Joe kidnaps a married couple, and forces them to live under hot lamps in cages for several days with no water. When the wife asks for a drink, Joe feeds her her husband’s blood, which she drinks with relish.
In the second of the Coffin Joe films, 1967’s This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, Joe is eager to spread his superior genetic stock to a team of potential mates. When he kills one of them for failing his sick tests, and accidentally does away with her unborn child, Joe has a guilty dream wherein he picture himself in Hell. This is one of the more vivid (albeit low budget) versions of Hell in a movie. This is an atheist character who is, suddenly, contending with the fact that he is in Hell. He then meets Satan, and sees that he and the Devil are one and the same. This vision, filmed in glorious technicolor, is terrifying to the audiences, and in a more conventional narrative, would force Coffin Joe to repent. But the opposite happens. Coffin Joe is inspired by the evil and pain he sees, and awakens from his vision convinced that what he is doing is not wrong. To punctuate how evil this man is, the filmmakers present him with Hell itself, and he walks away with new ideas. Few horror films are so ballsy.
William Bibbiani’s Pick: Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)
Our actions have consequences, and imagining those consequences can either spur us to action or frighten us away. So I suspect as soon as the concept of Hell was concocted, as a literal geographic location where you experience the worst kind of eternal torment, our minds started working overtime. What, exactly, does eternal torment look like? I’ve seen a lot of great interpretations over the years, from the tragic (Jacob’s Ladder) to the badass (Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey), but no other film captures the nightmare of Hell more clearly than Hellbound: Hellraiser II.
Unlike the original Hellraiser, which brought up the idea of Hell as a plot point but mostly focused on mortal sex and violence, Hellbound: Hellraiser II invites the audience into a labyrinth of pain and suffering, where escape is an impossibility and our obsessions walk the hallways. The things that gave us pleasure in life, sensations and sensuality, are warped into torturous experiences. You might still even have a good time, but you will still suffer.
The concept of Hell in the first two Hellraiser movies (before the sequels went in a more conventional, Catholic direction) are less concerned with punishment and more concerned about giving you what you wanted, for better and worse. Your actions have consequences, and those include the consequences you hoped for. But pleasure comes with a price, and you will pay that price in your flesh, in these grimy hallways, within these inescapable walls, in a maze mapped out by your own passion.
Brian Formo’s Pick: Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder is a hallucination ladder that feels like an alternate dimension for the director. Lyne was most known for his sex thrillers such as 9 ½ Weeks and Fatal Attraction, plus a major make-you-wanna-dance crowd pleaser, Flashdance. Still, the dreamscape that meets reality in Ladder is every bit as terrifying as anything David Lynch made. But it’s that human connection that elevates this nightmare into something darkly touching. Sex, the genre Lyne has most dabbled in, is more than physical after all. There are other things going on in the mind. With Ladder, Lyne fractured a PTSD mind and the tipping point—where the mind could no longer take it—was a hellish sex scene.
Hell is New York City circa 1989. That’s what a subway ad tells a war vet who’d fallen asleep and dreamt an awful Vietnam war crime. Or did he? Jacob Singer is a postman who’s experienced two great traumas: his tour in Vietnam and his young son’s death that led to a divorce from his wife. Now he regularly sees visions of demons on his mail route. Those visions culminate at a party; on the dancefloor, Singer envisions his girlfriend (Elizabeth Peña) having sex with Satan and Satan thrusts through her skull.
Singer tracks down some of the other men who survived the Vietnam tour and discovers that they too are seeing demons. The sightings have become more pronounced; they might’ve seen them more regularly prior, but like the subway ad foretells, the conditions of some of the streets of New York are so hellish—with constant steam emitting below, trash fluttering around, and shivering homeless stepped over—they never noticed. What makes Jacob’s Ladder the best depiction of Hell (on Earth) is that Lyne builds the emotional pull of Ladder. There’s a diabolical Manchurian Candidate plot that’s unveiled, but finding that out is secondary to our concern for the total lack of care for the soldiers who’ve returned home from a hellish war. There are shocks in Jacob’s Ladder, but what you most hope for is relief. Relief for Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins). And for the shocks to end.