Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: HELLMOUTH Is One Man's Existential Crisis
Ubiquitous character actor Stephen McHattie is always a pleasure to see up on the big screen. From supporting roles in Hollywood films like The Fountain, Watchmen and A History of Violence, to central performances in indie Canadian productions like the criminally underrated Pontypool, and now John Geddes' Hellmouth. At 67, there are entire lifetimes written on his face, even as the rest of him remains lean and spry. McHattie is a conundrum, seemingly young and ancient at the same time, and is perfect here as the reluctant Charlie Baker, caretaker of his own personal abyss. Given more than three quarters of the script to himself in the film, his quivering yet authoritative gravelly voice is beyond reproach. If all of the artifice in the green screen CGI around him, is not entirely as engrossing as the man standing in front of it, it mostly is in service of the lead character, and that is miracle enough these days.
"Keep this box within 10 feet of you, at all times." An instruction that several characters keep giving Charlie Baker, but it is more of a state of mind than a direct order. Having worked all of his life as a grave digger and maintenance man in a remote (and digital-backlot stylized) cemetery, Baker is minutes from retirement and still worried about dotting the i's and crossing the t's regarding the local vandals who might be moving around the tombstones in the cemetery. The ensuing countdown is wrought with both humiliation and diffidence that the film might be also called "About Soavi" (that is, for fans of Dellamorte Dellamore). The box is given to him by his overbearing employer, as he browbeats Baker into 'one more job.' As much as it is a literal object, the box is his lonely trapped career, his spent life and impending death.
Baker has a serious brain condition -- which is delightfully referred to as 'brain rattle' and might possibly be a similar diagnosis to Tom Hanks' 'brain cloud.' All he wants to do with the last two years is to visit Florida and see some sunshine; a property completely absent in his monochrome foggy lot in life. This makes his reassignment to the even more isolated Forks of Heaven Cemetery all the more insulting both for him allowing himself to be so easily pushed around, and for the constantly ticking clock on his remaining time on earth.
The film is essentially about the overwhelming terror or retirement and Baker slowly devolves from a maintenance man in standard issue coveralls into a monk-ish hermit in rags with a rope-belt, literally battling his personal demons is the CGI wilderness across time. Aesthetically, the film starts as a high-contrast black & white B-picture from the 1950s, makes brief forays into 1970s era neo-noir (with striking femme fatale) and occult nightmares before settling into auburn 1980s Spielberg-ian territory. Nothing looks as real as the practically achieved pictures of the eras it is evoking, but then again, the movie is designed and executed as a fever dream. Julian Riching (also cameo-ing here) and his nightmare-fuel smile goes a long way as well. And the entire film is a heightened reality both literate and goofy.
Lines like "If you step back, you cannot see yourself. I stepped too far back," play well in this head-space. I was rooting for Charlie to get himself to a good place, but I could certainly do with less CGI 'establishing shots' and over-baked computer modelling that occasionally flirts with taking over. On the other hand, compared to another forgotten era influenced Canadian Sci-fi throwback, the atrocious Bang Bang Baby, Hellmouth is pretty swell.
Truth be told, I have not been a great lover of the Collingwood, Ontario film collective, Foresight Pictures, whose previous pictures include Monster Brawl and Exit Humanity, up until this point. Hellmouth feels like a kind of high water mark in both execution and idea. With Tony Burgess writing the screenplay, Bruce McDonald cameo-ing at one point, and McHattie in the lead, it feels like the best we are going to get until Pontypool Changes gets off the ground. Seriously, Bruce, please get on that.