The subgenre of movies dealing with cults seems to be gaining steam in 2022. Last month I reviewed Honeycomb, a female-led Lord of the Flies film that envisioned a woodsy commune and carefree living for a group of teenage girls. Today, I’m telling you all about Hell is Empty, which utilizes the similar idea of runaway girls but adds a bit of sleaziness to the mix through a David Koresh type leader. Ed (Travis Mitchell), who prefers to be called Artist, quotes the bible, fancies himself a savior of runaways, and tells his harem of inappropriately aged wives he’s the Son of God.
Running away from home, Lydia (Spencer Peppet) ends up lost and near death when a shadowy figure takes her in. Later waking up in a house on an otherwise unoccupied island, Lydia is cared for, given a place to heal, and discovers the commune lifestyle of Artist and his four wives. The air is a little apprehensive at first. Lydia’s initial shock of waking in a strange place combined with the discovery of a vigil featuring a painting of someone who vaguely resembles her and having a crossbow shoved in her face is bound to make anyone a little tense. Being brought to a circular shed that looks like a circus tent, Lydia meets Artist and is quickly sold on the “join our cult” elevator pitch.
Searching for a home, Artist’s initial charms and the community of Artist’s sister wives leads Lydia to become indoctrinated by the beliefs of this familial cult. Lydia reveals that she was running away because her mother didn’t want her around after her father’s death and feels a patriarchal comfort with Artist and forms a strong bond with Saratoga (Nia Farrell). While I can accept the character’s enchantment with Artist and his cult, the timing feels brisk. Lydia’s decision to enlist happens in only about a day. I think there’s an appropriate amount of skepticism missing on behalf of this foundling who comes to believe, a little too quickly, in this shifty messiah.
It’s all very sketchy right from the get-go in Hell is Empty. Most of the girls are young, impressionable, and easily persuaded into this sycophant’s Martha Marcy May Marlene style of living. The five girls share a bed, prepare food, and are made to pray at the water’s edge. We hear their stories, but character-wise we barely scratch the surface of who these people are.
I was a little on the fence about the costuming. The girls are dressed similarly in Little House on the Prairie-inspired dresses, but they all have unique colors. This is likely more for character identification, which doesn’t make much sense given the stellar casting of a diverse group of actresses. It’s probably a nit-pick, but Artist would most likely try to dissolve any individuality remaining in the group and force them to conform to wearing the same thing.
Hell is Empty starts to intrigue when a storm rolls in, claiming the life of one of the girls and washing a stranger ashore, which, more importantly, leads the bible believing commune to consider Lydia’s arrival as a harbinger for the devil. Lydia uses biblical context to convince Artist, who’s immediately threatened by the stranger’s presence, into helping the man who’s washed up on the island instead of following through with his divine plan of outright killing him. There’s hypocrisy, shrouded in Dateline NBC overtones, in Artist’s willingness to help a young girl but then smite this man. He makes Lydia vouch for the lost stranger and accuses Lydia of having the devil in her when things inevitably go wrong.
Travis Mitchell is fantastic as the Old Testament spewing cult leader who changes his tone as swift as the breeze. The film is unsettling the more we learn about Artist. No matter his demeanor, Artist’s presence on-screen comes with an indisputable tension, especially as he grows increasingly vicious over time. Acting is never a problem for anyone in this film, though I wish we could have known more about Aya’s mute Murphy character and thought there was far more drama to be played up between Artist and his first wife Vivian (Laura Resinger).
One of the first things I noted was Sofie Somoroff’s magnificent production and set design of the film. A figure of Mary covered in candle wax resembling blood is used in many scenes, becoming more predominant the further you get into the film, foreshadowing grisly events. The circus tent shed works with ominous originality. It serves as a bit of satire for roadside evangelical hoopla and, though later lighting, presses a Mandy vibe as Lydia comes to realize Artist’s manipulative nature. The wallpaper in the house also adds to the aesthetic, with rows of boxes containing flowers giving a safe space quality. The ominous portraits of Jesus and Mary lingering in the background of these shots also prove an adept videographer is framing the scene. As before with the circular shed, this atmosphere changes in the later scenes, and rips and frays in the wallpaper from just outside the earlier frame can be seen, not to mention the ax later buried into it. The deterioration of Lydia’s initial perceptions of her newfound home to the uncovered reality is brought to life with many of these little details from Hell is Empty’s unsung hero.
Plenty of realizations become apparent to the viewer long before they’re realized by the characters, even those who haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid. We see that a lot in genre filmmaking, probably because the audience is used to deconstructing plotlines attempting to get ahead of the story’s twists. However, it often becomes bothersome when something is blatant and the character living in the moment hasn’t put it together yet. I also felt that certain moments were left intentionally ambiguous, perhaps to explore late, yet later never comes. While we witness the violence Artist is capable of throughout the film, there’s never a moment where Lydia considers the possibility that he’s the reason she ended up on the island in the first place. Though lightly implied, it never amounts to any horrifying realization.
Without diving in too deep, the film’s final seconds are very subtle and anxiety-ridden, and I haven’t stopped thinking about them. Trauma hangs heavy over the film’s finale, but for a second, safety seems possible. One look says it all, and trust following this event seems like an impossibility for the survivors, particularly in men.
Overall, Hell is Empty isn’t perfect, though it strategically executes many things perfectly. I know that sounds a bit contrived, let me explain: I like a lot of what the film does and believe it’s better than your average B-movie, but there may be too much packed into the film’s 97-minutes that it misses the ambitious mark it strives for. The script by Adam Desantes and Jo Shaffer is pretty solid, but something seems lost in translation between page and screen. If you’re into movies about cults and indoctrination, this may be a good one to consider. Hell is Empty’s pace makes watching the film a breeze, but something is missing between the dialogue and direction.
Hell is Empty is now streaming across all VOD platforms.