release spring 2024
Directed/Animated: Valerie Barnhart
Produced: Jelena Popović
Written: Valerie Barnhart and Sean Michaels
What the Hell
An apocoliptic anti-romance
After the fires in Dante's Inferno went out, it became apparent Hell was facing its worst crisis yet- total oblivion. Charlotte, a sharp-witted Harpy, gets stuck in an elevator with her fuccboi ex, Asterion. Living in the end-times, he won't stop at anything to try and win her back. Will she survive this journey through Hell? Will the weighing of hearts lead to their complete annihilation?"
There is probably no place more dramatic that has captured the imagination of the collective conscious like Hell. (Specifically speaking, The Christian Hell.) Conventional understandings of Hell have shifted throughout the ages as society evolved throughout history.
The Plague (1347-1350) is no exception to altering our collective understanding of Hell and the afterlife. The collective trauma of losing 1/3 of the European population caused a cultural shift in understanding of sin, death, and human destruction. A collective cult of the afterlife formed which fulfilled a need for hope during a daily experience of loss. Poetry Trieste called Ars Moriendi (translated: the art of dying) became popular forms of literature during this point in Medieval history. Much of this poetry answered questions such as, “Where are they now?” of the great Kings, Queens, Hero's, and beautiful women of the times. This time period, and this poetry was the foundations that set the scene for the most famous of them all, Danté's Inferno (1472). The poem, part travelogue, provided a geography of Hell. Danté showed contemporary figures surrounding modern scandals and offered socio-political commentary.
In this spirit, Danté's Inferno offers a short hand to the kind of Hell encountered in my film, What the Hell. My audience will be familiar with the 9 concentric rings of Hell organizing the damned based on the severity of their sin. Places like Purgatory, followed by lust, gluttony, greed, anger, heresy, violence, fraud, and finally the worst place reserved for treachery are indirectly explored within the film. Socio-political commentary is offered when Charlotte and Asterion confront this change in the natural order of things within the landscape while simultaneously confronting their own relationship with each other. Humans have constructed their own Hell on Earth. Covid-19: a direct consequence of environmental/ecosystem degradation, and systemic oppression ect- are touched upon as various forms of human suffering become new torture methods. Thus rendering the Hell Charlotte and Asterion occupy obsolete. Hell is redefined to fit our contemporary sensibilities and offers the idea that Hell is of our own making. The fire and life is missing in Hell. Earth is where the pain and suffering is. That’s where the fires are burning.
Gustave Doré (1832-1883), a famous French artist and illustrator from the Romanticist period created some of the most iconic and timeless illustrations of Hell. The Romanticist period highlighted imagination, sublime nature, symbolism, myth, and lyrical poetry. Often inspired by the Medieval period (which later lead to the Neo-gothic era) it is fitting that one of the most famous Italian Medieval epic poems would be illustrated by one of the Romanticist's finest master artists. I directly reference Doré's work within the background designs. While emphasizing the raw sublime nature of its dramatic landscape. Strong chiaroscuro lighting reinforces mood and emotion embodied within such a dramatic location.
Doré's illustrations are hauntingly beautiful which is contrasted with sublime nature of Hell. Hell itself possesses its own beauty for it is the humans, not the environment, that make up the true ugliness of Hell. The monsters and demons of Hell are merely there, like employees, to facilitate the righteous punishment of the damned. The sin a conscious choice of the human in question, a price must be payed to balance out the damage caused from the wrongs made in life. True to Danté's lessons, we are not meant to empathize with the humans. They are there for a reason. Instead, I want to bring our focus on the monsters that reside there.
In keeping within illustration tradition of etchings and the pen and ink aesthetic I also reference iconic surrealist illustrator Edward Gorey (1925-2000). Gorey's would often illustrate his figures outfitted in the latest Victorian era fashions and furnishings. I continue this imagery in the mechanical aesthetics of the elevator, human foie gras cages, and interior design of Charlotte's home. I stick with the cross hatching illustration techniques typical of Gorey's career. In referencing the Victorian Era (1837-1901), I further locate the imagery to be in line with the time that Doré lived as an artist.
Humour is a great device to defuse loaded topics and Hell is not immune to such treatments. In that vein, I heavily reference Hieronymus Bosch (1450- 1516) in the background character designs. He often created a menagerie of beastly creatures- a monstrous mishmash of visual puns and odd impossible combinations that do nothing but remind us that with God, anything is possible. From a Medieval perspective, monsters serve as evidence of the miraculous. The word “monster” is a combination of two latin verbs, monstrare (to show) and moniere (to warn). Monsters themselves were part of divine lessons and became signs that something has gone awry with the natural order of things.
Monsters often occupy the margins, and are located in the hidden parts of the world. They become stand ins and extensions of the self in all our dark places we occupy as people. The monster's primary purpose was to transform those that encountered them and now that humans have become the monsters, our monsters are forced to transform themselves in order to survive.
Antiquity's culture played an important role in the literary and artistic works of the Middle Ages. Much of what we know about classical poetry and classic mythology was because of the meticulous work of scribes and illuminators who produced books for the intellectual and wealthy classes of society, which valued classical learning. Medieval monarchs used classical history and legend as models for noble behaviour. The ruling class borrowed imperial imagery from their Roman predecessors to assert continuity between the grandeur of the classical past with the present. Within this tradition, Danté incorporated many monsters from Ancient Greek mythology into his version of Hell.
Harpies are half bird, half human monsters from Greek mythology. They were agents of punishment and would abduct and torture people on the way to Hade's domain. Harpy means “snatcher” and sudden disappearances were often attributed to these personified stormy winds of Zeus. Harpies didn't conform to feminine stereotypes and these monsters enjoyed autonomous control of their own personhood. Only at the start of the Roman and Byzantine empires did the Harpy become 'ugly' and was vilified in popular stories and myths. As all the Heroes of mythology were related to the gods and goddesses of the time, Monsters were also related to each other. Harpies were the direct cousins of the Gorgan Sisters- the iconic monsters from famous myth of Perseus and Medusa. In Inferno, Danté made Harpies the keepers of the suicides in the 7th layer of Hell. Since the suicides rejected their earthly body, they do not possess a body in Hell. Here the Harpy's insatiable appetite would slowly devour the suicides “alive” for eternity as their punishment.
Asterion, is the minotaur from the famous story of Thesius and the Labyrinth. Asterion was once loved and cared for by his mother, the Cretian Queen, Pasiphae but once he reached his teenage years his monstrous form gave to monstrous appetites. Having no choice, King Minos ordered Daedalus and son Icarus to build a labyrinth as a prison to house the monster. Here he received yearly human sacrifices until he was slain by Thesius. The minotaur is symbolic of our own struggle with our animal natures and appetites. Doré felt it fitting to put Asterion as guarding the transitions between the 6th and 7th layers of Hell in the labyrinthine rocky pathways that join the two layers.
And it's the proximity of these two locations that helped Charlotte the Harpy to develop a relationship with Asterion the minotaur.
Naturally, a gothic film full of monsters living through the apocalypse locates the story within the horror genre. Many marginalized people have gravitated towards horror because the genre allows these groups to process their trauma from the safe distance of fiction. As a woman, I think Charlotte’s coming of age is important to be framed within the conventions of this genre. In horror, women do not have to be “pretty”, “kind”, “chaste”, or even “feminine”. Women in horror can shed gendered assumptions about them and carve out their own destinies. Charlotte does just that and joins the likes of Brigitte and Ginger Fitzgerald (Ginger Snaps 2001), Dani Ardor (Midsommer 2019), Ellen Ripley (Alien 1979), and Justine (Raw 2016) to name just a small sample of iconic characters. My feminist statement does not stop at Charlotte. Asterion’s own journey is just as important. He learns that taking part in misogynistic and predatory behaviours has direct consequences. He also learns that he isn’t entitled to the trappings that patriarchy has promised him. He too undergoes a transformation as his self awareness broadens. Horror showcases our collective anxieties and allows us to be “transformed” by confronting our “monsters”. In this way, horror has allowed many women to learn how to be female on their own terms- and not by patriarchal standards.