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The American release box art of the German-lensed thriller Hell (which benefits from the dual-language entendré of translating to ‘Bright’ in German) screams ‘From Roland Emmerich, the director of The Day After Tomorrow and 2012,’ but the funny thing is…Emmerich doesn’t appear to have a whole lot to do with co-writer/director Tim Fehlbaum’s film outside of an executive producer credit, which, I assume, is about as well-earned as Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Presents’ credits atop films like Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Yeun Woo-Ping’s Iron Monkey. Suspicions aside, Hell does kind of fit Emmerich’s environmentalist horror M.O., it’s just going to disappoint the, erm, hell, out of his blow ‘em up, drown ‘em out, freeze ‘em good fanbase with its modest production costs. Hell is the simple story of three regular people (with almost no official back-story) wandering the wastelands of a solar apocalypse (perhaps in an attempt to avoid controversy, a newspaper heading tells us that the extreme heat is being technically caused by freak solar storms, not global climate change). That’s really all I can say concerning the plot without basically unwinding every indiscriminant plot point that rolls along.

Hell (2012)
Hell gets by for a while on its super-heated planet gimmick, but Fehlbaum and co-writers Oliver Kahl and Thomas Woebke neglect to do much else unique with the whole post-apocalyptic thing for quite some time. There are occasionally clever, yet largely incidental touches, like a bit where characters capture water from a broken down hot water heater unit, but, for the most part, this is yet another bleak dissection of end of the world politics. Trust and will is tested, friends turn on each other, some people aren’t who they seem to be, et cetera and so forth. There are shades of vampire cinema throughout the film, made obvious by the fact that the sun has turned deadly in this environment (the car environment is pure Near Dark and I was regularly reminded visually of Jim Mickle’s equally modest Stake Land), along with thematic similarities to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, but the most obvious inspiration is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  What continues to work here, however, are strong characterizations. The small cast feels natural and real without any real introduction. Fehlbaum and the extremely capable cast play on our expectations and emotions effectively without over-explaining their motivations. In fact, there’s simply not a lot of dialogue here at all, which is genuinely refreshing. It’s also surprising how quickly the film moves, based on how little actually occurs over the 89-minute runtime. A basic description of the plot reads rather boringly and lacks re-watch value, but unravels without losing rhythm or momentum.

Fehlbaum, whose only other feature-length film is something called Nicht meine Hochzeit, makes some rookie mistakes in creating his stark, sun-baked reality, but also manages to press his little film beyond obvious budgetary constraints. There is a simple beauty in his images, despite his nearly militant insistence that the bulk of the film is shot in handheld close-up. The scope framing doesn’t make the dizzying effect of the listless camera work and some of the action is shaken into utter incomprehensibility (which actually works wonders for the climatic ‘escape’ sequence), but when it counts Fehlbaum achieves his intimate yet poetic look. At best, the direction reminds me of Allen and Albert Hughes’ The Book of Eli. Hopefully, Hell will end up being a springboard to something more substantial, where Fehlbaum can deal with more narrative complexity and even special effects.

Hell (2012)

Video


Hell is shot using the RED ONE digital HD camera system and is presented here in 2.35:1, 1080p video. Fehlbaum and his cinematographer Markus Förderer utilize the format well to over-expose the image (well, faux-overexpose) without losing subtle and important details. The basic palette is broken into two parts – the blown-out yellows of daylight and the desaturated blues of night. The daylight scenes are the more sharply detailed of the two styles and feature more subtle gradations. The filthy look of the characters, coupled with the consistent use of close-ups, reveals a vast array of textures and fine details, while the bright, nearly white lights wash out the majority of background elements. In these cases blacks are rarely purely black without much of a contrast drop when differentiation is important and, occasionally, reds pop against the severe colour palette. These mostly consistent yellows (green blends into the mix as well) do feature some compression artefacts, specifically minor banding effects on the rare occasions that the backgrounds do feature gradation and shadow. The nighttime sequences are also practically monochromatic, but feature more in the way of fine lines and highlights. Here background detail is more important, which helps give depth to the rather unembellished compositions. Black levels are nice and deep without bleeding over into the blues or occasional warm, orange highlights, but also feature a fair bit of thin edge-enhancement and occasional white dots of noise.

Hell (2012)

Audio


Beware, this Blu-ray defaults to a Dolby Digital 5.1 English-dubbed track when you first turn it on. A vastly superior DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 original German language track is only a click away, I assure you. The sound design isn’t excessive, but certainly goes a long way in helping the modest production match more endowed Hollywood releases. Silence and dynamic range is important to the sound texture, so there isn’t exactly an excess of ambient noise during quieter moments. The louder moments, usually action or scare-based, feature much more in the way of directional enhancement. The basic themes of the audio design are usually based around the subjective camera work, meaning the majority of stereo and surround effects come from off-screen as we remain relatively within the character’s sound-space. The best examples of this usually come while characters are assaulted from outside their car and the thumping of the assault surrounds the viewer. There is a rather obvious ongoing joke where Nena’s ‘99 Luftbaloons,’ the only CD in the car, is played and this offers the production the ability to play with the quality and location of musical sound as well. Lorenz Dangel’s score is sensibly understated, often blending all but entirely into the aural backdrop. At its best, the score adds major chill to the more suspenseful sequences by sitting in for creepy sound effects and runs over the end credits with true grace.

Extras


The only extras are an English-dubbed trailer and trailers for other Arc Entertainment releases.

Hell (2012)

Overall


Hell is a strong, modest effort that overcomes much of its uneven and predictable plotting through strong characters, performances, and direction. I was hoping for a bit more straight horror based on plot descriptions, but I got my thriller fix once it was firmly established that I wouldn’t be seeing a whole lot of gore. Arc Entertainment’s Blu-ray release looks very nice, outside of some minor banding and halo effects and the DTS-HD MA sound effectively captures the claustrophobic aural experience, though beware, the default track is a compressed Dolby Digital English dub. Shame about the extras.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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