Heaven, Hell, and the afterlife are concepts that are frequently explored in every kind of media. Books (including the all-time bestseller) have done it, games have done it, music has done it. So, of course, movies have their fair share of pieces on the subject. There are untold ways a director can take the concept of Hell and run with that in creating something interesting and unique, regardless of genre or ultimate intent. Here are 11 relatively recent films that provide a fiery glimpse as to the cinema's conception of the underworld. Some are more amusing than horrifying, but the ideas behind them are nonetheless interesting. So, grab your puzzle boxes, horny birds, and cats, and join me in exploring Hell.
After Bill and Ted are killed by the future-cyborg versions of themselves, they begin the long fall down a "really deep hole" to Hell. One (short) game of 20 questions later they land on a small rock in a fairly creepy idea of Hell. Pained screams and wailing can be heard from numerous people off screen, while the excellent duo find themselves on one of many floating rock platforms. After realizing their album covers "totally lied to [them]." They spot the devil ("Woah, who's that?" "Ted, who do you think it is, dude?") and determine that the Sign of the Horns is the only way to get his attention. His attention, of course, means that their little rock is pulled into the maw of a giant, mechanical, fire breathing dragon. Basically nothing can be seen of what's happening on the other platforms, but the idea of Hell being a bottomless pit filled with people apparently experiencing their own, personal versions of hell is more than a little terrifying.
Hell is a big part of "Little Nicky", as the titular character is the one of the devil's three sons, on a mission to stop his brothers from turning Earth into the new Hell and save Satan from decomposing into nothing. While, overall, the film may have put some rather talented cast members (Harvey Keitel! Rodney Dangerfield!) to poor use, they have some individually great moments. Given that this is a comedy, we see more comedic ideas behind the individualized torture so common in portrayals of Hell on film, such as the peeping tom who gets to learn what a real giant, horny bird is like. The only overall view of Hell we see in the film is during this sequence and features some routine elements of representation: lava pits, rocky landscapes, torture, crazy demon monsters, pitchforks, etc. Still, this is a uniquely amusing version of Hell, one that focuses no Satan, Lucifer (here two different beings) and not just on what it means to be someone sent there.
One of the things that South Park has come to be known for is its portrayal of Hell, but all of that was set up in the film, which released in the middle of the show's third season. Satan had appeared once before, in the season one episode "Damien," but that had been it. The movie and its focus on Hell established many of the factors that would carry throughout the show, including Satan being homosexual, and Saddam Hussein being his emotionally abusive on-again, off-again boyfriend. The actual design of Hell is straightforward: lots of rock formations, fire, with people being tortured peppered throughout. Instead, the interesting part of Parker and Stone's representation is their characterization of Hell's inhabitants.
The concept of the afterlife in "What Dreams May Come" is a very interesting one. People who go to this world's Heaven find themselves in a world where they have direct control over their appearances and immediate surroundings solely through their imagination. And Hell is, as expected, a polar opposite of this in which the inhabitants' worlds are created by their biggest fears, pains, and regrets. In the film, Chris (Robin Wiliams) dies and goes to Heaven, but his wife, Annie (Annabella Sciorra) later commits suicide and is sent to Hell. Chris travels to Hell in order to save her and discovers that her personal hell is a twisted version of their family home.
"Jacob's Ladder" pulls its interpretation of Hell from the 14th-century German theologian Meister Eckhart, going as far as to quote him directly in the film. The idea here is that Hell acts more like purgatory than a permanent destination, and that the experience is determined by the person's willingness to die. Those who cling to life feel as if they've continued living, but it becomes increasingly horrific and fragmented as the "devils" tear your life away. Those who accept death instead see angels, freeing them from their memories and attachments in order to allow them to ascend to Heaven. The concept is laid out when Jacob's chiropractor quotes Eckhart and explains the above, and hammered home by Jacob's acceptance that he's actually dead and apparent ascension to Heaven in the film's final moments.
"Altered States" is the only film on this list that doesn't explicitly, narratively contain a direct interpretation of Hell. As psychology professor Edward Jessup studies people's other states of consciousness, he discovers a Mexican tribe that uses a drug to create shared illusion states, something that could be explained by the group shifting from the primary consciousness to another. He seeks them out and tries the drug for himself before bringing some back with him to his lab, where he uses it while in a sensory deprivation tank. Here is where he experiences various altered psychological and physical states, one of which is Hell (possibly "real" but more likely what Jessup imagines it to be). The imagery is very traditional - lots of fire and lava, bodies both alive and dead everywhere, christian symbols - but the whole sequence is edited in such a way that it manages to make the viewer feel very unsettled.
"Event Horizon" brings us Hell with a sci-fi twist. The crew of a rescue ship is sent to investigate a distress call from Event Horizon, a ship that was testing an experimental "gravity drive" that could create wormholes to travel through space. But, as with any technology too good to be true, there's a massive drawback, and for the gravity drive, it's the fact that the wormhole created actually just leads to Hell (or a universe heavily implied to be Hell). Toward the end of the film, Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) is bombarded with imagery of his crew being tortured once they're in Hell, each apparently in their own unique way. This sequence and one earlier recording of what Event Horizon's crew did when under the influence of whatever demons came through the wormhole are the only glimpses of Hell we get in the film, but they're more than enough.
Seems like we have our one and only recurring actor for this list. Guess Keanu just enjoyed the underworld the first time around. In the world of "Constantine", Hell is depicted in a unique way. As opposed to being this "other", this place that you go when you die, Hell is much the same as where you are when you die. We get a few glimpses of Hell in the film, but the most ample is when he goes there willingly to look into the death of Detective Angela Dodson's sister, Isabel. When the camera zooms out to reveal the hellscape, what we see is as if Los Angeles had been subject to a nuclear blast and then somehow dropped on Mars. The very high winds serve to sort of blur everything in the background, keeping us as viewers from getting a firm impression of how everything looks. Still, Keanu Reeves navigating between destroyed cars while walking down a deserted LA highway makes for an interesting Hell.
In a fashion which some people would add a -ception to (it's old, guys, let it go), the version of Hell we see in "Deconstructing Harry" is actually one in a story idea that Harry - played, of course, by Woody Allen - is sharing with university students at an event in his honor. In it, a character based on Harry travels to Hell to take back the love of his life, who's been kidnapped by the Devil. And the Hell he goes to, while rife with the kind of humor you expect from Allen, is at least a little hellish. The walls all appear to be made out of corpses, and those still alive (well, dead, but, "alive" in hell) are stripped of their clothing and chained to walls, or forced to spend their time in pools of boiling water. Billy Crystal's Devil (based on the character that Crystal plays in the movie) is delightfully evil. The kind where he has an AC in his section of hell because "it destroys the Ozone layer."
While the first "Hellraiser" showed the Cenobites (demonic beings who exist to torture people brought into Hell) coming into our world, this one has some returning characters going to Hell themselves. The design of the Cenobites' world is exactly what you'd expect, given their S&M influences. It's certainly unsurprising that the Cenobites' main room is full of chains dangling from the ceiling. Overall, Hell here is laid out like a Colosseum-esque labyrinth with large open areas surrounded by tall walls comprised of winding passages and staircases. But it's the small touches, and the creepiness of the Cenobites and their monsters, that makes this Hell an interesting one.
THE BEYOND* (and one bit of giallo fun)
The Beyond demonstrates more Hell-on-Earth than straight Hell, but it does give one look at Hell by the time the credits roll. In 1920s Louisiana, a highly violent crime at the Seven Doors Hotel opens one of the doors of death, basically creating a portal between Hell and Earth. Nearly 60 years later, in the early 1980s, a woman inherits the hotel and begins renovation to open it up for business again. But the work also re-opens the door of death, and the creatures and beings of Hell begin pouring into the real world. She, along with Dr. John McCabe must deal with zombies, ghosts, face-eating tarantulas, and other horrors in trying to escape or close the door. The two end up trapped in "the Beyond" and this world's Hell is a barren, foggy, seemingly endless landscape broken only by the corpses littering the ground and the moans of the not-yet-dead.