It’s been a pretty sparse start to Toronto After Dark due to a miserable poutine-induced case of indigestion that I was wholeheartedly convinced was lurking Ebola thanks to my layover in Dallas. However on day two of the fest, I managed to squeeze in a double header starting with Pontypool & The Septic Man writer Tony Burgess’s new film Hellmouth. A film claiming to be a bold and moody, atmospheric, personal and spiritual journey of dueling demons and self, did Hellmouth set the audience afire and live up to the hype? Hell no.
I have never found a film so instantaneously dull as Hellmouth. I knew within the first ten minutes this misguided effort couldn’t be held together even with the gravitas superglue that is Stephen McHattie. Hellmouth is a green-screen-soaked affair visually similar to a low rent Sin City 2 with dialogue as wooden and dated as Frank Miller’s 2008 debacle, his adaptation of The Spirit. It’s a throwback film attempting to pay tribute to noir films of the 50s and 70s, and I will concede that, especially given its budget, the visual effects team has done a fantastic job of creating a sprawling and ominous grayscale environment that looks gorgeous and engaging, even with the occasional misplaced and overdone demonic creature. Hellmouth wants to be an epic, a bizarre Dante’s Inferno. All it succeeds in being is more confusing than reading all of Divine Comedy translated by one-limbed monkeys using typewriters made of emoticons.
Stephen McHattie’s character Charlie Baker, a graveyard keeper on the verge of a nice Florida retirement, has his plans to play golf and go to Disneyland foiled by a cartoonish evil boss who demands he spend the next six months at a mysterious new cemetery post. Baker is forced to journey to a deserted and destitute graveyard, despite objections and a revelation that Baker is suffering from a terminal brain condition. Either it was my morbid desire to see this film dead, or just a flash of writing brilliance, but I found McHattie’s methodical description of his “brain rattle” the most charming moment of the film. I’ll spare you the details, but if things were appropriately weird before, as soon as Baker crosses into this new environment, shit gets outlandishly crazy.
There’s a ghostly buxom babe straight from a pulp detective novel who, for whatever reason, immediately falls in love with Baker (McHattie does look damn good for his age but really?), and a cop hilariously pulled straight from the same clichéd pages–not to mention evil afterlife creatures and gothic gloom galore. It reminded me a lot of Sucker Punch, with the actors trying their absolute damnedest to convincingly deliver dialogue that reeks like sulfur and eternal hellfire. It’s a mess, a complete and utter mess that tries to wrangle far too many tangents and loses sight of the already-messy focus of Baker battling his own mortality and the years wasted living in fear and seclusion. I sat through the entire film with the same confused look on my face that McHattie wears as he scans the bubbling brimstone landscape around him.
I honestly have very little of value to contribute to a civilized discussion of Hellmouth. McHattie is brilliant as always and somehow works his way through a script Burgess must have written by passing it around to a group of Alzheimer’s patients, asking what life was like in their day. I can say without sarcasm that director John Geddes truly has tirelessly worked to create a stunning, original environment for such an impressively limited budget. The film’s conclusion finally seems to right the ship slightly and point us back in the direction it was steered before wave after wave of unnecessary, convoluted distractions sunk this film to the depths of agony. A film that will have inevitably have just as many blind champions as it will bitter detractors. Hellmouth will require repeat viewings to fully decipher exactly what the fuck is going on. Coincidently, repeat viewings of this film can be found in a particularly brutish circle of hell.