A crude Australian animated film “created” in the sense a blocked drain “creates” a sculpture of hair, Go to Hell!! is as cult as you can get without an IV of Kool-Aid. It’s ugly, but fascinating. I want a world where more things like this get made, regardless of how few people watch them.

Essentially a one-man production, Go to Hell!! has the shortest end credits you will ever see in a feature-length 2D animated film. “Character design: Ray Nowland. Storyboards: Ray Nowland. Layouts: Ray Nowland.” Etc. There are digital effects (credited to Leaf Nowland), but we are talking about tens of thousands of drawings, done by hand, by a single man, for a film with commercial prospects beyond hopeless. Nowland really wanted this son of a bitch to exist, and it’s worthy of attention for that reason alone.

It was made in 1997, and licensed to Energee Entertainment in 1998. It played a few times on SBS’s Eat Carpet, which was a late-night revue for strange and outre programming (basically an Australian equivalent of MTV’s Liquid Television). I’ve heard rumors that it was once sold on DVD and VHS: evidence does not support this. More people claim to have been molested by Bigfoot than have watched the film. Little information exists about Go to Hell!! and I cannot answer urgent questions such as “why does the title have two exclamation points and not one or three?”

It is not possible to watch Go to Hell!! legally. If you want to do so anyway, someone uploaded a 240p copy to Youtube (how did they get it…?), and someone else made a typically awful AI “remaster” with wrong colors and part of the frame missing. Pick your poison: both look like shit.

The plot is…interesting. It seeks to describe the arc of the cosmos, and it does so at an incomprehensibly fast gallop. Go to Hell!! has the tone of a drug-addled stranger jabbering conspiracy theories at you on the bus, and a visual style to match.

The movie starts out on a a near-future version of Earth. With an eco-crunch about to hit, a wealthy businessman called GD announces that he will journey into space with a reservoir of Earth’s genetic material to save it from extinction. But there’s a dark side to GD. We see his personal life: he’s a dirtball who hynotically brainwashes attractive young women into sleeping with him (“your nipples will explode with delight when you think of GD!“). His seemingly heroic mission is actually just a way to escape his vengeful wife, who has caught him in flagrante delicto with his new secretary.

This charismatic but sleazy character seems modeled on Kerry Packer, the billionaire media mogul who was famous for his dramatic personal life, including flings with models and Page Three girls (one such relationship ended with the girl committing suicide). Fun fact: a guy who lives down the road from me was actually friends with Packer in the 90s. Well, acquaintances, I suppose. Actually, he was the Telstra IT technician sent to Packer’s hospital ward to wire up his TV with a satellite downlink (when you’re a billionaire media mogul you can afford to do things like that). He was advised by a personal assistant to not speak to Packer, or even make eye contact with him. Other than that, they were best mates.

Anyway, GD arrives at an interstellar space station, accompanied by his son Little Red and his new fuck-bunny Angel. (Red: “are you my new mommy?” Angel: “not in a million years.”) Shortly after, nuclear war breaks out on Earth and the planet is destroyed. I hate it when that happens.

Stranded in space, GD catches a lucky break. He discovers a distant planet which is capable of harboring life. Using genetic experimentation (and a suspended animation chamber that allows him to slow down his own aging), he populates it with ape-like creatures, who he thinks he can bend to his will. But there’s one person he cannot bend to his will: his own son.

Almost from the jump, Little Red is portrayed as a force of corruption. He breaks into a hydroponics garden on the space station and destroys a large quantity of fruit. More seriously, he takes another boy on an unsanctioned space walk: the boy dies in a tragic accident. GD pulls some strings to keep his son out of trouble, but Red has few friends aboard the space station, and he flees to the planet as soon as he can. There, he begins corrupting GD’s apes into disobeying his father’s will and thinking for themselves.

At this point, you’re probably like the detective at the end of The Usual Suspects, noticing fifty obvious clues at once. Like how GD’s name is GD, and his secretary is named Angel, and Angel calls Red “you little devil!” at one point.

There are several ways to view Go to Hell!! One is as an Australian Fritz the Cat: a “counterculture” film aimed at stoners. The tone is sophomoric, and there are fart and dick jokes aplenty. The final shot is of a man taking a piss while wistful piano music plays.

The second is a grand (but cynical) retelling of the Christian eschatological narrative. From Genesis to Exodus to the Gospels to Revelation, it stays the same: GD has a plan to “save” humanity (ie, enslave them), and Red messes everything up. Admittedly, “the Bible, but postmodern” isn’t the most original thought ever thunk, but here it’s done in an ockerish “‘straya, cunt” way that I hadn’t seen before. For example, we see Jesus “walking on water”…by surfing.

The third is as an art film. Go to Hell!! is at it’s most compelling when inner vision and outer form twist together in strange galvanic chemistry, producing confusing but always fascinating animated filmmaking. Large stretches of the film (particularly at the end) are wild expressionistic romps that seem unrelated to the story, yet the movie is much stronger for them. When Red is “tempting” people, cuts rapidly stagger between his smirking face and a diabolic devil face, almost fast enough to trigger epileptic attacks. Maybe it’s for the best that Go to Hell!! aired in the graveyard hours, or it might have a body count.

As mentioned, the film tries to tell virtually the entire story of the Bible, and do plenty of other things in between. It’s wildly overstuffed, and moves breathlessly fast. At times you wish it would slow down, because there are a lot of nice moments that get trampled.

For one thing, the writing is often genuinely witty (GD: “I have risen, as was predicted!” Man 1: “who predicted that?” Man 2: “I don’t know, but he was right.”) For another, it’s smart: probably too smart to be viewed while punching a cone at two in the morning. I wonder if stoners got the joke about GD’s name, which is a reference to the Hebrew practice of dropping out vowels (compare with YHWH). Or the way GD’s “angels” become deformed by generations of inbreeding, and look…well, surprisingly close to the way angels are described in the Bible. Elsewhere, the humor gets a bit broad, such as when GD tries to save humanity with a device called Active Radiation Kills…geddit?

Although Christianity serves as is the scaffolding for the film’s story, the story is unabashedly secular. God is portrayed as a lecherous pervert, and his angels as deformed mutants. The Devil is the only one on humanity’s side. Right through history, we see vignettes of the same pattern playing out, with God (GD) having a plan for us, and the Devil (Red) foiling it. He does what wrestling fans call a “heel turn”, becoming the movie’s heroic figure. As soon as the story enters modern times, we enter overt Ralph Bakshi territory. GD is getting increasingly upset with Hitler, who he regards as evil. We’re obviously meant to note the parallels between Hitler’s camps and GD’s own crimes (he once destroyed every life form on the planet to make way for his apes). This is pretty on-the-nose stuff, and more daring than Bakshi ever got.

There’s a lot I like about Go to Hell!! The style, the vision, the way it takes no prisoners and gives no fucks. The moments of seeping dreamlike weirdness that exist between story beats, the way a snail leaves a glistening trail of slime behind it. All of this works perfectly. The final shot of the movie is eerie and thought-provoking. Maybe GD himself was being manipulated by a power beyond his understanding. Maybe it’s turtles all the way up, as well as down. Who knows?

There are also many things I don’t like. Ironically for a film with an atheist sensibility, it can get a bit didactic and preachy. Red gives a long speech to humanity at the end that’s basically just an Earth Day recruitment ad. We have to save the environment, manage our resources, etc. It’s so self-serious and so tonally out of place that I wonder if it was meant as a joke. After all, it’s the Devil giving that speech.

And the requirement that it follows the Bible’s story means things feel really forced and shoehorned. I was bored through all the parts re-litigating Exodus. I wish Nowland had found a way to tell the core of the Exodus story, instead of just literally making it “GD controls a human called Pharoah, Red controls a human called Moses.” I already know what happens in Exodus. I don’t see the point of making a cheap animated version of The Ten Commandments. Here, the movie is in flight from its strengths.

I haven’t mentioned the animation. As I’ve said, it was made by one man, and looks pretty good, viewed in light of that fact.

The economics of 2D animation are paradoxical. Technically, you can show literally anything in animation: it’s not necessarily harder to draw a planet exploding than it is a man boarding a bus (it might be easier—outlandish subject matter means the audience will forgive more cartoonish cheating.) The downside is an extremely high per-foot production cost. Each minute of 2D animation costs thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

But this is partly why I enjoy 2D animation. It’s the Twitter of filmmaking. Animated films are tight and focused out of necessity, and they almost always have a clear creative vision. Yes, that vision might be “Reagan-era toy commercial”, or “Mindy Kaling staging a Wehrmacht-style occupation of a beloved franchise and making it all about her”, but there’s no possibility an animated film will devolve into self-indulgent “shoot three hours of nothing and call it a film” auteur rubbish.

Ray Nowland was once a big fish in Australia’s tiny animation industry. He is credited on Marco Polo Jr vs the Dragon (the first Australian ever) and worked for Yoram Gross’s studio (he was principle character animator on several Dot and the Kangaroo films in the 80s, along with Blinky Bill: The Mischievous Koala). He also did some work for Burbank Animation, under the name “Ray Nowland”.

If you’re a fan of Australian animation, you might spot a few easter eggs. Like this shot of a dead koala, which has a Doom 2 “killing Commander Keen” energy.

And while I’m not going to go and check, I strongly suspect that the shot of the kangaroo hopping away is from Dot and the Kangaroo‘s final scene.

[edit: I checked, and it’s not. But given the Blinky Bill reference earlier, it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re supposed to think of Dot. I forgot how sad that movie is: the ending made me tear up a little.]

Watched by few, loved by fewer, Go to Hell!! deserved better than it got, which was apparently nothing at all. Maybe word about it will finally start to spread. It was Ray Nowland’s first and last film as a director. His alpha and omega. Where is he now? Is he even still alive? Who knows. God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world.


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    Comment by Leaf nowland — 2024-04-03 @ 06:40

    Hi Leaf!

    This movie is incredibly fascinating to me. If you have anything to you’d like to share about its conception, production, or distribution, I’m all ears.

    Comment by admin — 2024-04-05 @ 19:58

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