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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.
Tags for Back from Hell Full Movie
, Don Ruem
, Larry DuBois
, Matt Hundley
, Matt Jaissle
, Shawn Scarbrough
, William Jaissle
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