Spoiler Alert. Watch Hellbound before reading this. It’s a six-episode investment, somewhere between a long movie and a short series in length, currently on Netflix at the time of this post.
You came back! You made it through the hellbound incinerations, live cremation, and infanticide. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of the horror genre, and the movie has some genuinely appalling scenes. I chose to watch it because I was impressed with Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan, ostensibly a zombie movie with a clever ending, but ultimately a film about sacrifice for others (not of others). I’m not a fan of the zombie genre either, but the movie came highly recommended, and I was not disappointed. So I took a chance on Hellbound.
An unwritten rule of monster movies is to progressively reveal the monster, saving the full power and horror until the big confrontation at the movie’s climax. But in the opening scene of Hellbound, the agents of hell fully reveal themselves. They burn their victim to a smoking crisp after a chase scene down the city’s crowded streets in broad daylight with plenty of gratuitous collateral damage, necessary for sheer entertainment value and unambiguously revealing the hellbound threat to the populace at large. Throughout the movie, the modus operandi of the agents of hell remains consistent: An angel in the form of a large face appears and issues a decree of the time of death. The monsters show up at the appropriate time, wreak mayhem, and a bloody, burning demise to the decreed victim. The demons never change in form or capability. Only the venue and the victim change.
In the first three episodes, knowledge of the attacks circulates through social media and the news. Jeong Jin-Soo rises to power and orchestrates the rise of New Truth, the religious cult that imparts moral significance to the decrees. As the high priest of the New Truth, Jeong Jin-Soo puts his practitioners on a mission to expose the wrongdoings of the condemned, hoping to discover the misdeeds that led to his undisclosed decree to hell as an innocent child. Ultimately, he knows the attacks have no meaning but believes humanity is better off with the illusion of meaning rather than the anxiety of not understanding that afflicted his life. New Truth grows in power using the street justice of the fanatical Arrowheads, dedicated to exposing and shaming the decreed, watching the final judgment dispatched dispassionately behind faceless masks. Jin Kyeong-hoon, dressed like something out of a Mad Max movie, incites the fanaticism of the Arrowheads through his rant casts on the internet. The Arrowheads beat lawyer Min Hyejin to within an inch of her life for the crime of opposing the new order, and New Truth defeats detective Jin Kyeong-hoon, who chooses not to expose the truth of Jeong Jin-Soo’s unrevealed decree and hellbound death. Following the rules of progressive disclosure, Yeon Sang-ho’s monsters of sanctimonious self-righteousness and fanaticism start to reveal themselves.
In the last three episodes, we jump forward five years to the indoctrination of New Truth into society. Jeong Jin-Soo has left his legacy in the incompetent hands of the buffoonish mob leader who understands power but not purpose. The New Truth has little to do with factual truth. New Truth uses the police to enforce their moral authority, only employing the Arrowheads as a last resort. New Truth exposes or manufactures the sins of the condemned and wrecks the lives of all those associated with them. Yeon Sang-ho’s twin monsters are in plain sight with the names New Truth and Arrowheads.
Min Hyejin returns to lead an insurgency. She spent the last five years doing martial arts training so she could kick some monster ass and concealing decrees and hellbound executions to protect the families and friends of the condemned. In possibly the most hellish scene, New Truth live incinerates one of Min Hyejin’s co-conspirators in a crematorium oven.
When an angel delivers a hellbound decree to an infant, everything comes to a head. New Truth stops at nothing to protect their moral authority, attempting to conceal the hellbound execution of the undeniably innocent victim. Min Hyejin convinces the parents of the doomed baby to broadcast the performance on social media, using the reformed fanatic Jin Kyeong-hoon’s help and equipment. Jin Kyeong-hoon joined the insurgency when he received a decree of hellbound death, which coincidently will occur five minutes after the baby. But once a fanatic, always a fanatic. New Truth convinces him that the divine has given him the sacred task of ensuring the baby’s death before his own to make it look like the monsters were only after him, thereby preserving their moral authority. Using logic only available to fanatics, he believes that god has ordered him to hell to save heaven, and killing the baby before the monsters arrive is the only reasonable course of action.
In the final chaotic scene, the progressive disclosure comes to its peak. The full power of the monsters is on display. All the human and hellish nightmares combine for the final battle to kill the decreed infant. Min Hyejin and the parents combat Jin Kyeong-hoon and the hellbound monsters to save the infant while the residents and the world stand silently in judgment, neither fleeing nor helping.
Finally, Yeon Sang-ho slays the beasts as appropriate for any decent monster movie. Miraculously, the self-sacrificing parents prevail at the cost of their own lives, finally revealing the Real Truth to the world. The demons dispatch Jin Kyeong-hoon to the underworld. Sanctimonious self-righteousness, fanaticism, and indifference are the monsters. To paraphrase the dialog, “The Hellbound attacks are no different than the randomness of any natural disaster. The affairs of humans are the business of humans.” Moral judgment doesn’t come from the divine. Incineration by natural disasters is a tragedy. Incineration of humans by humans, infanticide, and just making people’s lives miserable are the horrific crimes.
The monsters are gone, at least for the moment, but I hope Yeon Sang-ho doesn’t make a sequel to Hellbound. He has taken on monsters, superheroes, and zombies. His sequel should turn another staid subgenre of fantasy on its head. How about vampires?