Twitch, my go-to resource for dope films. In it, if I recall correctly, a bloodied schoolgirl was pointing a vintage pistol at the camera as she stood within a dim, greenish orange freight elevator. But whatever it was, of course I had to see it. I've no idea how Yamaguchi's film flew under my radar for so long. It was released in February 2004 in Japan (who knows when it made it stateside, but I doubt it had a proper screening beyond festivals). Far as I can glean, this is the young director's second feature-length film, after 果てしないため息 (1999, means Endless Sigh), when he was 21 years old. Yamaguchi's relative age + the thrillingly warped cyberpunk aesthetic of the film (all the way down to proper names, more on that later) made me instantly think of the verbosely assaultive, avant-garde writer and sound-artist Kenji Siratori, specifically his 2002 novella Blood Electric, written in English, though w/ a gruesome A.I. syntax. Combine Siratori's evil-future prose distortion w/ Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo realm. Add some of Tsukamoto's artsy filming; I'm no film student, but Yamaguchi achieves some brilliant effects and emotive dredging on an apparently very limited budget simply w/ inventive (and more importantly, highly effective) camera angles and colorings. There's really only one setting in the film, the industrial-grime lift aforementioned above and referenced in the title (the film's original title is 愚者の瓶詰め aka Bottled Fools, which naturally is less maladroit than the English title and simultaneously more creepy. By varying the perspectives and camera-angles, Yamaguchi fabricates both a narrow prison cell and a seemingly endless corridor, a bus depot and bizarre living quarters, in this single freight elevator. It never feels limiting nor claustrophobic, unless he pushes the viewer to feel that way. Beyond that, there are brief shots of outside the lift, as it and others travel up this jet-black, endless skyscraper, echoing both The Matrix and George Orwell's 1984, plus what appears to be a tunnel abutting a chemical refinery sector, awash in toxic haze, and blips from a police interrogation room, darkened and veiled in deep blue. The music is properly moody and fractured, when present, and the cast is incredible. Yamaguchi achieves a fab viewer-disorientation simply by making all proper names (person and place) severely warped. What do I mean by this? The whole cast has half-Japanese, half-garbled names (Viblio Sawatsukumori, Zitacock Obitani, Ninalada Mochizuki), except for the lead (schoolgirl w/ gun) Luchino Fujisaki, who's like name in real life is in fact Luchino Fujisaki. It's just enough to disorient us, b/c even if you don't know Japanese there's something odd about an ultra-violent bomber named "Calpico" (the beverage) and a serial rapist named "Zitacock". And as futuristic as the film is, Yamaguchi imbues it w/ strong steampunk references (throwing in China Mieville as a reference point here, maybe a bit of Neal Stephenson as well), from the militant outfits of the police to the gears and dials on the somehow arcane lift, to the "elevator girl", conducting her work mechanically like a Shinkansen driver.
Spoilers begin here!!!! Hellevator has a clear plot, believe it or not (esp. from my Siratori comparisons above). In very brief: it's set in your cyberpunk-ideal dystopian near future, probably Tokyo but who knows? Luchino is on her way to school and takes the lift up, but not before buying some illegal cigarettes on the sly from a drug dealer and inadvertently causing a chemical explosion in the process. She suffers from intense flashbacks from several years ago on said lift, involving stabbing her scary (and probably pedophiliac dad) w/ a pair of scissors, and she wigs out on the lift, descending into psychosis and killing a few people before being arrested and sentenced to a mind-erasing.
Luchino has a strange conversation w/ her doctor on the way to the lift, which is done entirely in voiceover. I didn't realize it at the time but they're both telepaths. Yamaguchi portrays this exchange by adding white flecks all over the screen like magnified film-grain. Her doctor chastises her for having the cigarettes (they're outlawed b/c this world is underground, deep underground, and we have no way of knowing just how deep it is until way later in the film) ut distracts a police officer so that she can escape. This exchange eventually recklessly causes a massive explosion, when her smoldering cig drops near flammable fluid containers in this industrial sector. I get the strong feeling here that Luchino's a bit of a rebel but is harboring something tumultuous just beneath the surface. I.e she looks sick to her stomach aside her chatty, belligerent schoolmate on the lift (who for whatever reason disembarks way before they arrive at the school level). The lift itself, besides the girls and the stoic elevator girl (Yuuko Takarada as Ninalada), is eventually occupied by a young woman w/ a baby carriage (Kae Minami as Alamocia), an old woman and her granddaughter (who has this pull-along toy that appears to be a human brain under a bubble of glass????), a professor-type w/ a briefcase (Ikuma Saisho as Viblilo) and some zoned out young dude w/ headphones and shades (Masato Tsujioka as Nocosh, who I know best from his Tsukamoto films, specifically the crazy almost-mute gang member in Bullet Ballet, the particularly violent, stab-happy one). After some shared pleasantries, mainly b/w the old woman and Alamocia (w/ the little girl locking eyes w/ Luchino several times, and Viblilo visibly annoyed w/ her friend), old woman & girl + Luchino's classmate disembark, and the lift fills w/ a formation of like 15 nearly identical salarymen, moving in unison to answer their (notably antiquated) phones, where the lift becomes inundated in their buzzing conversations, only for them to disembark as a group. Here, at the prison level, two chained-up prisoners and jerkily unstable guard enter.
Like Con Air, when you just KNOW it's a bad idea to transport extremely violent criminals in an enclosed space for an extended period of time, a curtain of hopeless dread descends upon the lift. These guys' auras glow w/ seething, murderous rage. The rapist Zitacock (Keisuke Urushizaki) is literally a reptilian goblin, and one of the most effective onscreen psychopaths, I'm convinced, in film history. Small and bald, his expressions all pop-eyed and tongue-wagging, he shudders like a caffeinated small animal as he leers at the women on the lift. He gets right in Luchino's face and, w/ a swift camera descend down his throat, we witness her telepathy at work. She appears as an invisible bystander in like a sewer, frozen in place as Zitacock chases down some girl, rapes her, then butchers her and gnaws at her bloodied flesh, all in stuttering film edit. The bigger guy, Calpico (Koji Yokokawa), stares up at the ceiling and speaks in staticky barks that sound half like rough Kansai-ben and half like his speech is being played in reverse. It's entirely disconcerting. Luchino's delayed refinery explosion naturally occurs when these two thugs are on the lift, causing it to grind to a halt, the guard to freak out, and, somehow, for Calpico to escape. He frees Zitacock and they both savagely beat up the guard, but Zitacock's mind is on his, well, cock, so he goes after elevator operator Ninalada, screaming at her to disrobe as she finally breaks her stoic guise and struggles w/ him. He turns on Luchino as well, beating her to disrobe (she begins having flashbacks to dear ol' sicko dad doing the same to her). Calpico senses the nervy professor-type Viblilo is trying to make a phone call and overpowers him. Amazingly, the whole time, zoned-out dude Nocosh and young mother Alamocia do absolutely nothing to intervene. Luchino, meanwhile, snaps half-out of her flashback, like she's in a lucid dream, grabs the nearly dead guard's handgun, turns it on Calpico, and shoots him repeatedly. Her explosive rage actually gives Zitacock pause from molesting Ninalada, and in the dying guard's last breath he withdraws a syringe of anesthetic and injects Zitacock in the leg.
Everyone becomes growingly restless. The lift is hot and blood is everywhere. Viblilo covers the guard w/ his coat, while Ninalada must be wondering why he (or Nocosh, hello, for that matter) didn't try to help her. She decides, finally, to kill the supine Zitacock (apparently elevator operators get training in such things, at least in this dystopian society) but of course he wakes up again and overtakes her. Viblilo wigs out and beats Zitacock to death, adding to the blood-spray in the increasingly hellish chamber, and then freaks that he'll be arrested for murder, even though it was self-defense. Luchino looks at Nocosh for help or answers or something, but instead of penetrating his mind, he blocks her and she ends up in an empty freight lift, surrounded by multiple, salivating Zitacock clones, who lunge in to tear her apart. Back in reality, Viblilo decides to escape through a small chamber on the roof of the lift, forcing Alamocia to use her baby carriage as a step-up). Naturally this topples the carriage over, revealing no baby but loads of..groceries? Luchino enters her mind, into a room full of coin lockers, spies Alamocia exiting, opens her coin locker and withdraws a paper bag containing a stillborn's body. It's one of those moments where you could totally see it coming and Yamaguchi didn't HAVE to show the (fake) stillborn, just Luchino looking in the bag would've sufficed, but he did it anyway and it's still totally shocking. That combined w/ her growingly frequent daddy flashbacks send Luchino over the proverbial cliff. She breaks down screaming, and Viblilo tries to give her a sedative (he totally pulls a bottle of pills from his briefcase) but she refuses like its poison — again flashing back to dad pouring her some very dodgy wine. Nocosh then starts HIS telepathy on her, mentally admonishing her to calm the hell down, that he's an officer but on her side, and the professor-type is really a dangerous anarchist building a nuclear weapon. She enters Viblilo's mind and sees the doctor in a lab, working on stuff, w/ a jar at his side containing an embalmed fetus. Seriously. And this is meant to signify the weapon. Viblilo hears voices approaching from outside the lift, as help has finally arrived, so he pulls another jar out of his briefcase and struggles w/ it. Luchino gasps at the fetus-jar-nuclear-weapon thing in his hands and wails into him, stabbing him to death w/ some metal object that I'd missed earlier. She's stabbing him in the chest, then flashes back to her stabbing dad w/ scissors, then back to Luchino. The now-shattered jar contained pills, maybe more anxiety meds or something else, just pills. The hazmat-suited guys force open the lift's doors and arrest Luchino.
During the interrogation scenes in the blue-tinted room, the police are interested in Luchino's involvement in the earlier explosion, and we also learn that Nocosh wasn't a cop after all (though he denies he knows telepathy). Alamocia, joined by either her husband or boyfriend, cradling a BABY in her arms, confesses how Luchino was a weirdo and creeped her out. Luchino's doctor absolves all responsibility for his former patient's violent actions on the elevator. And now I'm thinking: was she "just" delusional, from the obvious physical and emotional distressed incurred from her sicko dad? Did she imagine Alamocia threw out a stillborn baby? Did she imagine Viblilo was a bomb-making dissident? Obvs Zitacock was a rapist, but what then about that scene of him in the sewers? All Luchino's telepathy interventions are thrown into question, as her increasingly warped perception on the lift anoints her an incredibly unreliable narrator. Her fate is what I called "mind-erasing": basically another guard takes her up a freight lift (much in the same way as the young guard did Calpico and Zitacock), to the very very top, where more hazmat-suited guys stick a mask on her face, zap her, then the guard pushes her out the lift at the top floor. Luchino tentatively climbs a metal ladder on the wall and emerges, like out of a deep sleep, from what looks like a sewer grating, into a field of rust-colored grass. It's very THX 1138. Luchino catches her breath, finally looking about her surroundings…and I won't tell you what she sees, the final image is familiar enough, though, to plunge us back into everything we just witnessed in the previous 90 minutes of film.