I assumed it was a student film. It's the kind of thing that you'd guess was made by half a dozen blokes in the woods over a weekend. More precisely it appears to have been "successful in film festivals", or in other words it's basically a showreel. Kitamura would make his feature film breakthrough three years later with Versus
, which is apparently a sequel to Down to Hell, and has since gone on to a fair amount of international success with both Japanese and Hollywood movies. He made Midnight Meat Train (2008), for instance, which was an English-language Clive Barker adaptation with Vinnie Jones in it and I've heard is supposedly quite good.
Kitamura sounds quite an interesting chap, actually. Apparently he quit high school at 17 and left Japan to go to the School of Visual Arts in Australia. Two years later he'd graduated and returned to Japan, where he established an independent studio called Napalm Films and made a couple of films like Down to Hell. (The other one is called Heat After Dark.) Versus
though was a proper film, albeit a silly and ultra-violent one, and it's from that he built his career.
The story here is pretty simple. Four guys are kidnapping people off the streets, taking them into the mountains, hunting and then killing them. This is fairly nasty, although not so much in the gore special effects. The guys are doing their best, but it's all practical "done on the spot" stuff, usually with things sticking out of people. Careful editing means we don't actually see the cutting and slicing. No, what makes the violent content quite strong here is the premeditated brutality of it all. For example, if you've got a man being beaten to death, he won't just be being battered. No, it'll be done in freezing cold blood, the hunter studying his victim for a while before each strike with the bicycle chain, hunting knife, etc. This is horrible. At one point I thought I spotted someone holding a cheese grater and I was just glad he hadn't been the one who'd caught their victim, but then I realised it was actually a CB radio and I'd been tricked by the poor picture quality.
Also not helping the gore is the fact that the colours are bleached and washed out, although I don't know if that's a deliberate stylistic decision, the original camera equipment or just me watching a bad VHS copy. However that said, you've got to admire the scene where someone gets hanged with their own intestines.
The story's skeletal, but not entirely trivial. Admittedly it's basically there as a framework for the violence, which does in fairness have its own kind of energy. However that said, there's also an Evil Dead influence that gets weird towards the end. I liked these supernatural story elements. They weren't enough to make the film good, but they certainly made it more interesting than some kind of mock-snuff film.
The cast and production team are mostly all the same people. For most of them it's the only screen credit they'd ever have in their lives, although they're making the most of it by doubling up as production designers, assistant directors, cameramen and so on. Kitamura's one of the actors too, as the long-haired guy with the knife. (None of the characters have names, by the way.) There are only six actors in the whole thing and the only other people who ever worked in the business afterwards are Nobuhiko Morino, who's a composer, and Keishiro Shin, whose sole other credit is being producer on another Ryuhei Kitamura movie in 2006.
There isn't really much to say about this one. It's brutal, short and single-minded, but with some supernatural touches. You're certainly not encouraged to care in the slightest about any of the cast, with even the main victim being the kind of guy who'll run along the middle of the road when a car's chasing him and later after somehow taking down one of his assailants and getting hold of his knife will just run away without finishing him off. He even looks like a loser, but it's arguably praise to say that he seems sufficiently gormless and incapable that his retarded actions seem like characterisation rather than plot holes. It's not emotionally involving. It's not scary or exciting. It's fairly nasty and mildly ingenious. I wouldn't recommend it in a million years, but only because it's just not particularly interesting rather than because it's actually bad. It might almost be cool if some mad TV station decided to broadcast it one day.