What the Hell? 7 Depictions of the Underworld in Film

Hell is one of those things that’s up for individual interpretation. Some people believe it’s a real place full of fire and brimstone, or it’s all made up, or it’s a state of mind. Some people think it’s a Shia LaBeouf marathon from which you can never turn away.

So, with Hell as a setting, Hollywood basically has a blank slate. They can go the Old Testament route, or they can get more existential with it, or something in-between. (Even Hollywood can’t do the Shia LaBeouf marathon option. No studio would fund that.) As such, here are seven films and their take on the place bad folks go when they die.

(Obviously, this contains spoilers for the films listed.)

Drag Me To Hell

Sam Raimi’s return to the horror genre after messing around with the Spider-Man films (like that was ever going anywhere! Come on, buddy) features Alison Lohman showing that she could carry a starring role and Justin Long proving that he’s still obnoxious even when he’s trying to be serious.

After spending three days fooling around with the ghost of an old lady, Lohman’s character, Christine, thinks she’s finally free of the curse placed upon her. Unfortunately, after meeting her boyfriend (Long) at the train station, she discovers that she’s accidentally messed up the whole “getting uncursed” thing and gets to burn in Hell anyway despite her best intentions. Whoopsy!

So, for the briefest of moments, we get a glimpse of the titular afterlife. It appears to primarily be the old standby of lava and fire and yada yada, except there are weird, disembodied hands grabbing on to Christine and her face slowly turns corpse-like. Creeeepy. It’s probably better than sticking around with Justin Long, though.

The Frighteners

The Frighteners was Michael J. Fox’s last starring role, but it was also Peter Jackson’s first big-budget special effects film. It’s like trading one movie icon for another. (What do you think we can get for Rob Schneider?) It was also the first time Weta Digital really got to flex their muscles, and flex them they did (at least as far as 1996 CGI was concerned).

At the very end of the film, as Fox’s character tries to drag Jake Busey’s deranged yokel serial killer (there’s gotta be some kind of weird genetics at work in the Busey family) and his girlfriend into heaven, we get a nice look at Weta’s idea of Hell. What at first looks like some kind of Silent Hill-esque tunnel made up of wavering flesh turns into a free-for-all buffet for snakes, which is itself inside of another, larger snake that plunges into a traditional pool of lava. Peter Jackson apparently has a serious Indiana Jones complex.

Event Horizon

Before Paul W. S. Anderson decided to firmly commit himself to making terrible movies, he did manage to crap out one damned decent film. That movie was the cult horror/sci-fi flick, Event Horizon. It’s like a Reese’s peanut butter cup of blood and spaceships.

Throughout the film, it’s made pretty clear that the “other dimension” that the Event Horizon accidentally slipped into before the events of the movie is none other than Hell itself. Finally, at the film’s climax, Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) is shown a view of this “other dimension” in a series of flash cuts that make it look incredibly unpleasant: Spikes, barbed wire, blood, dismembered corpses, and probably an overwhelming smell of poop coming from Captain Miller’s shorts.

Jacob’s Ladder

In-between directing films about infidelity, infidelity, and infidelity, Adrian Lyne decided to direct a horror film called Jacob’s Ladder (which contains a subplot about infidelity– Dude needs some new material). And to be fair, the movie doesn’t technically feature Hell, at least not in the literal sense. Jacob (Tim Robbins) is in his own, personal Hell, made up of the doubts and regrets he went through in life as he lays dying on the battlefield in Vietnam. It’s kind of a purgatory thing, and Jacob’s friend/chiropractor, Louis (Danny Aiello) sums it up thusly: “The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life, your memories, your attachments.” Oh, but to have a chiropractor who is also an expert in metaphysics. We could be like back-cracking Ghostbusters.

The most explicitly Hellish moments come in the hospital scene that occurs halfway through the movie. Jacob is wheeled on a gurney through a decayed hospital with air raid sirens blasting in the distance. Soon the whole thing gives way to rusted, industrial grates, deformed people, randomly strewn gore, and bloody tiles. This one scene actually inspired the entire Silent Hill series of video games and movie(s). And by inspired, I mean they basically jacked the whole thing and ran with it. But hey, Pyramid Head? That was all them.

What Dreams May Come

This film came from a point in Robin Williams’s life where he apparently decided to bulk up his “serious films” resume (or maybe he was just trying to avoid the inevitable Patch Adams 2: Patch Harder, who knows). Despite being fairly cheesy and so incredibly sappy that your hand might stick to your face while you’re watching it, the movie does have some good moments. (Also it has Cuba Gooding, Jr. as an angelic kinda character. Fair warning.)

The main plot of the movie involves Robin Williams’s character leaving Heaven and descending into Hell in hopes of rescuing his wife, who committed suicide after he died in a car accident. Hell itself seems to have phases. It begins with the River Styx and, oddly, tons of books, then transitions into a big stormy sea filled with screaming, grabby people, followed by the traditional “things and people burning and shit.” After that, though, is when things get crazy. After crossing a field made up of people’s faces, Williams falls into a strange, upside-down church which contains an eerie, abandoned imitation of the house he and his wife shared in life, which she now mopes around, forgetting everything about him and her life. That’s a pretty big Hell. It’s basically the Dante’s Inferno approach– Keep coming up with new, terrifying ideas until you’ve got every single one jammed in there.

Hellraiser II

Despite having the word Hell right there in the title, the first Hellraiser didn’t really deliver the goods. You have to turn to the second entry in the series to get a solid look at the joint. Oh, Clive Barker. You strange, strange fellow.

There’s little of a traditional idea of Hell here. In fact, the whole thing manages to come off as a quintessentially 80s version of the Underworld. It’s mostly a gigantic structure that looks like some sort of labyrinthine archaeological find, and then there’s an elongated octahedron with black cones of light shining out of it floating in a featureless, gray sky. Also, that octahedron is referred to as “the God of this place– Leviathan.” So that’s pretty cheery. It’s kind of a minimalist take on Hell, but at least it’s something different.


Back in 2005, Warner Bros. adapted the Vertigo Comics series Hellblazer into a feature film, except they forgot things like how the character was supposed to look, where he was from, and how his name was pronounced. You know, the stuff no one would ever complain about on the internet.

This film actually comes closest to the Shia LaBeouf marathon Hell concept I mentioned earlier, as it actually has LaBeouf in a supporting role, but the filmmakers apparently felt that too cruel to the audience and opted for a desolate cityscape kinda thing. Keanu Reeves roams around Hell and finds empty, destroyed cars, harsh winds, and big red skies. The weird thing here is, despite how awesome it looks, this Hell doesn’t seem to be very tortuous. Sure, there are demons and stuff, and I wouldn’t want to live there or anything, but it looks more unpleasant than, say, Hellish. The whole thing just looks… itchy. I don’t know.

Visit your own personal Hell by reading more lists

Ashe Cantrell is the pen name of Ashe Cantrell because he doesn't understand how pseudonyms work. For more from Ashe, check out Weird Shit Blog and his book, The Book of Word Records, available now!

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