Hell is Empty Image

Writer/director Jo Shaffer’s harrowing Hell is Empty is a horror movie about a death cult of sister wives. Teenage runaway Lydia (Spencer Peppet) is found beaten and bloodied in a ditch by Ed (Travis Mitchell). Ed, being the living messiah, accepts this gift of an unconscious teenager from the Lord and tosses her in his rowboat. He brings her back to his island of sister wives, along with the cigarettes he went for. Ed has seen the end of the world coming and has created a hand-painted paradise to ride out the apocalypse.

His followers are married to him and call him The Artist. Ed’s paintings of his doomsday visions starring him decorate the house without electricity they all live in. Vivian (Laura Resinger) is Ed’s first wife and the original follower of the Artist. She was the loyal right hand of God, but then that right hand started snatching teenage girls. Disobedient Millie (Meredith Antoian) steals the messiah’s cigarettes. Finally, there’s loyal Murphy (Aya), a striking mute feral girl who isn’t right in the head and is trusted with weapons.

As Vivian failed to produce a son of the messiah, that job now falls to teenage Saratoga (Nia Farrell), who is ready to pop. All the sister wives wear plain prairie dresses while the Artist parades in an old wife-beater. He gets the master bedroom while all the women have to share the same bed. With Lydia being the fifth woman, somebody has to go. Who’s it gonna be? What mysterious way will it happen? Sister wife blood will spill.

First off, enormous props to Shaffer’s screenplay, co-written by Adam Desantes, for getting right down to it. Hell is Empty opens with a passed-out, beaten teenager, but then we’re immediately dropped onto the cult island. That is a quickdraw setup that all screenwriters should aspire to. Don’t slow roast the audience for 40 minutes; have everything piping hot and ready from the start. Also, the use of hand-drawn art in the opening is very exciting.

Ed, being the living messiah, accepts this gift of an unconscious teenager from the Lord…”

The Artist is no slouch in the painting department, and it almost makes putting on a prairie dress understandable, as Ed has skills. The cult world production and costume designer Sofie Somoroff and set designer Emma Cantor created is expressionistic with a folk horror aftertaste that adds a lot of distinction. This world is lived in and all the more horrifying for it.

Also adding flair to the proceedings are the standout performances from Peppet and Aya. Peppet was made for horror, as she can both scream and be their cause. Aya brings real star power to Hell is Empty with her deranged feral role. I thought I was looking at modern dance, with the writhing and slithering so perfectly woven into her movements. To pull that much of the screen down without saying a word is impressive.

Unfortunately, the rest of the picture needs more salt. There is some development on our way through the cult nightmare, but more was needed. We are basically trapped in a death cult, just waiting to get out. After getting to the island, instead of finding a scenic route, Shaffer just has the bus do laps until the tires explode; it gets repetitive. Also, Mitchell’s messiah needed a lot more charisma. For a cult leader, he has no game other than being the guy on the island with the rowboat. It should be blistering apparent to these women that not only do they belong to a cult, but they also belong to a broke-a*s cult. The Artist’s off-white wife-beater is not a technicolor dream coat.

Shaffer does an excellent job of walking the line in representing brutality without being sadistic to the characters. This is the direction neo-exploitation should be pointed in. Hell is Empty is worth your time but is unlikely to develop a cult following of its own.

Hell is Empty (2022)

Directed: Jo Shaffer

Written: Jo Shaffer, Adam Desantes

Starring: Spencer Peppet, Travis Mitchell, Aya, Nia Farrell, Laura Resinger, Meredith Antoian, etc.

Movie score: 7/10

Hell is Empty Image

"…the direction neo-exploitation should be pointed in."

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