Why does hell in movies always look terrible? The underworld in blockbuster cinema has languished for years in creative purgatory, never quite frightening enough. Often packed with CGI skeletons, auburn hues, and banging nu metal music (Papa Roach), cinematic hell always tends to look like a scene from a Playstation 2 game. Perhaps the responsibility to make the underworld frightening will fall to the forthcoming Spawn reboot, written and directed by Todd McFarlane.
All religions share a common understanding of a doomed afterlife. Some understood it as a state of non-being (the ancient Egyptians) or a self-imposed exile from God (early Christians). But a literal land of suffering, the most enduring image of hell that continues today, comes from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, a staple in high school English lit classes. Aside from archaic references to Alighieri’s popular culture, Alighieri’s hell is the definitive hell with “circles” of suffering packed with torture porn rigs that was the Saw of its day.
Movies, comics, and games riff on Alighieri’s hell nigh constantly. In the 2005 film Constantine, hell was a wasteland that lived beneath the reality of our own, while in the Adam Sander comedy Little Nicky, it was a kingdom of darkness populated by cosplayers. Other films, based on budget and varying creative interpretations, still lampooned hell on the same plane: Legend (1985), Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), and South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut (1999) all envisioned a domain ruled by a pale or red dude with horns.
And, honestly, it’s a bit tiresome. Spawn, the smash-hit Image Comics series about a decorated U.S. marine turned demonic supersoldier, had an Emmy-winning series on HBO and a 1997 film where both portrayed hell with the same dreary, medieval brushstrokes.
On the upside, McFarlane is promising a different Spawn than seen previously and maybe even a different hell. Confirmed to aim for an R-rating and a modest $10 million budget, the film — MacFarlane hopes — will bring Spawn back to film with his “scary, badass” script where Al Simmons is not the hero but an overwhelming presence. “[He’s] in the background, this thing moving around, this boogeyman,” he said in a 2016 interview. “That boogeyman just happens to be something that you and I, intellectually, know is Spawn.” Outside production McFarlane has stayed mum on the universe in his new film, but what little he’s shared indicates a more cerebral film akin to last year’s horror hit The Witch.
But, it has been awhile since anyone has taken a trip to the underworld in horror movies. Newer films like As Above/So Below and Drag Me to Hell dealt with the underworld but only within arm’s reach. In regards to paying a visit to the big guy sitting in the ninth circle, maybe Spawn will take us there.