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Back from Hell
IMDB Rating: 3.2/10 from 128 votes
Release: /

Back from Hell

Genre: Drama, Horror
Director: Matt Jaissle,
Stars: , , , , , ,
Synopsis: A priest visits an old friend, who has gone to Hollywood to become a movie star. He finds out that his friend has sold his soul to Satan for stardom and now regrets it. The priest determines to help his friend fight the devil and regain his soul. Written by

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Critic Reviews

Back from Hell is something of a mess. The premise is entertainingly subversive--it's even quite compelling and alternately funny at times. Matt Jaissle is a one-man band (he directs, writes, produces, composes the score, does the cinematography, edits, mixes the Kool-Aid, etc.) who definitely exhibits passion about the genre and a great, enthusiastic attitude towards his material, but the technical and artistic elements of the film make it plod along like jalopy with square tires that's also missing a door, two fenders, and has three coats of primer over gaping rust holes.

The story is simple as long as you do not mind glossing over the details. Basically, Back from Hell is about two guys who were school buddies, but who have gone their separate ways. The one who became a preacher, Aaron (Shawn Scarbrough), is driving out to meet the one who tried to make it big in Hollywood, Jack (Larry Dubois). Jack has returned home to the Ann Arbor area after his Hollywood bid didn't go so well. He made a deal with Satan for success, but when Satan asked for human sacrifices as collateral, Jack backed out. From that point, the film is basically an excuse to introduce zombies and incompetent ninja Satanists (apparently they're big in Michigan) whom Jack and Aaron must battle.

I found Aaron an attractive character. He's a preacher who has come out to hear confession from his friend, and despite his weakly stated reservations, he ends up becoming an ass-kicking, murdering mercenary. Of course, if we pay close attention to the plot, it makes very little sense. Jack expressed reservations about offering human sacrifices, but in the flashback scene, he's shown killing some bum or something. It's almost hilarious how wanton Jack is about killing people throughout the film, and even more hilarious how easily Aaron joins him. The ninja Satanist guys remain fairly inexplicable. Jack seems involved with them somehow, but it remains a mystery. That's just the tip of the iceberg of the plot confusions and inconsistencies on a fine-grained look.

It doesn't help that the cinematography and lighting throughout the film are poor. The visual design could be compared to any random low-budget porno film from the early 1970s. On the other hand, the film's grunginess is an appropriate atmosphere, and Jaissle chose a couple attractive locations for exterior shots.

Also not helping are the horrible performances. DuBois, in particular, sounds like someone semi-literate trying to read their lines. On the other hand, the performances are occasionally hilarious. The standout on this end is the "cop demon"--I was laughing so hard at this over-the-top, almost Lynchian performance (it reminded me a bit of the Garmonbozia midget from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)) that I had to pause the DVD.

The dialogue is usually banal, but there are also some catchy lines, if mainly because they're so ridiculous or ridiculously delivered. "Tell me I didn't just murder a man in cold blood", answered with, "You just performed a fast exorcism, pal" was amusing, as was "They say that (the) more things change, the more they stay the same . . . if Satan has taken over, things will certainly change, and things do seem to be the same", and of course, "Tell Satan I said . . . kiss my black ass!"

Jaissle tries to be John Carpenter by composing his own music. Unfortunately, he doesn't have quite the skill needed to write compelling, simple music that can be repeated throughout the film without becoming grating, in contrast to Carpenter's approach on films like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Halloween (1978).

But as I mentioned, the attitude of the film is laudable, even if the extremely clunky technical abilities keep getting in the way. Jaissle does his best to get plenty of blood and gore in the film. Cutaway shots to one of our two "heroes" getting sprayed with blood pumping from the fresh jugular wound of an opponent is a big motif.

However, there is usually no suspense in the attack scenes. This can be blamed on a confluence of less-than-satisfactory elements, from the awkward directing to the bad performances and the lack of timing when it comes to editing. The gore is decent, but it usually comes across as stagy, which is not what you want to shoot for in a visceral horror film. This could be improved by better lighting and editing to hide some of the fakeness, but again, the directing and performances have a lot to do with it, too. It also doesn't help that some of the effects are painfully bad. A throat slashing with a knife couldn't look more fake, and the "evil Bible hand" couldn't be more obviously inanimate as Scarbrough "fights" against it.

On the positive side, Jaissle does enough admirably unusual things that I had a mini-epiphany while watching. I came to a better realization of why I love horror so much. What other genre can take such left turns and be so experimental when it comes to characterization, plot developments, actions, cinematography and so on? It's very unlikely that you'd see a romance, comedy, drama, etc.--at any budget level--suddenly start an extended sequence in negative colors with heavily processed, purposefully unintelligible dialogue (one of the better sequences of Back from Hell). You wouldn't even see other genres with a long late-film dialogue-free sequence of a principal character just walking through the woods, shot from a number of unusual angles (another good sequence). In horror, maybe because it isn't very well respected by the mainstream, filmmakers are truly free to do just about anything they can imagine. You can have any disposition and fate you like for any character, and you can do all kinds of experimental, "rule-breaking", artistic and technical things along the way. In this respect, Back from Hell is admirable, even if it's a mess.

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