This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.
I believe it was the great Mattel icon Barbie that posed the immortal question – ‘do you ever think about dying?'. It's a certainty for us all and tackled throughout various novels, poems, folktales, TV series, and cinema. And yet what happens after is something we know so little about.
The subject of existentialism and death is tackled in a bleak yet oddly poignant fashion in Pandemonium by French director and writer Quarxx, a tour-de-force of a horror film that received its UK premiere at FrightFest this weekend.
Pandemonium opens with Nathan (Hugo Dillon) waking up in the middle of a misty, mountain road to find himself unhurt after a car and motorcycle accident. He quickly finds Daniel (Arben Bajraktaraj) who was on the motorcycle and is shocked to see he is unscathed. However, Nathan's world comes crumbling down when Daniel explains to him that they have not woken up, they were instead both killed in the crash and are experiencing life after death.
Nathan is plunged into denial before he comes face to face with his own corpse, and as the pair question how they can interact with the physical world and the amazement of experiencing the afterlife and what this means for civilisation, they are soon forced to consider the prospect of heaven and hell as two doors appear in the mist – one seemingly signifying heaven, and another a portal to hell.
It soon becomes apparent the men have been judged by their mortal actions and are both destined to enter the seven rings of hell to be punished for their sins. Once there, Nathan is tormented by the pain of the other wandering souls bound there for eternity, forced to relive their stories by the demon Norghul.
Pandemonium acts as an anthology film that follows Nathan as a protagonist, as well as two stories from souls banished to hell. We start with a seemingly psychopathic child, Nina (Manon Maindivide), who finds her parents dead and blames it on Tony the Monster (Carl Laforêt), a deformed man who lives in a ‘magical cave' beneath the family estate. Next, we are faced with every parent's worst nightmare as Julia (Ophélia Kolb) finds her daughter who has taken her own life after vicious bullying from her peers, and struggles in the wake of her death.
The film is a distressing and yet charming exploration of guilt and how it eats away at us, from the bizarre ‘imaginary' world Nina creates that protects her from her true nature to the devastating actions of Julia as she cannot comprehend how she could not protect her child in her moments of need. These dark stories are accompanied by scenes of bleak brutality and bloody violence that are sure to evoke shock and tears.
Despite the tragedy in these stories, Quarxx cleverly balances the morose and macabre with dark humour and absurdist moments that offer comic relief in the hellscape of Pandemonium. But despite its more surreal moments, the film's themes remain grounded in a sobering reality that forces the viewer to question their own mortality as the credits roll.
The grueling narrative is told through some of the most beautiful cinematography and practical effects in cinema as well as some incredible performances, most notably from young Manon Maindivide who is sure to have a bright future if her performance as the devilishly delightful Nina is anything to go by, and from Ophélia Kolb as Julia whose harrowing monologue to her deceased daughter is sure to leave viewers wailing alongside her.
Pandemonium is a film that viewers will not forget in a hurry. It is a truly unique horror experience that will make you laugh, cry, and question your own existence and the meaning of life and death all at the same time.
Pandemonium had its UK premiere at FrightFest 2023 on August 26.