The wrath of God has been rendered, cinematically speaking, in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s a perfect storm; sometimes it’s Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules striking great vengeance down upon thee with furious anger in “Pulp Fiction.” “Hellbound,” an ambitious new Netflix series from “Train to Busan” director Yeon Sang-ho based on a webtoon (“The Hellbound”), imagines the wrath of God as three smoky gray, towering Hulk-like beasts that appear out of nowhere and proceed to throw slam people into cars, walls, anything really, as if they were chew toys. They splatter a human being’s blood everywhere, trashing the environment around them, and then torch said target to a crisp. We later learn that this first (known) victim was given a decree by a floating face in the sky, who told this poor guy exactly when he was going to die and be sent to hell.
But in one of the show’s many exciting intellectual ideas, this highly bingeable series is not about the terror of the monsters, but what would happen next—how so many people would lose their minds and sense of self, especially if such a literal force of wrath were rationalized as vengeance for our sins. The terror here is people, the opportunists, cult leaders, and blind believers who follow fear to the point of shaming others, hating others, destroying each other for the goal of earning God’s mercy. Yeon’s series mixes this grounded horror with thoughtful discussions about how we define a sin, and what we as human beings are deserving of from such a God.
But before the religious folks project their own meaning onto it, the opening beatdown is investigated like a crime by Jin Kyunghun (Yang Ik-june), who provides our first-person perspective into this phenomenon. He has a sad backstory involving his wife being murdered by someone and then getting out of jail just years later. That becomes a sore spot that is pressed upon by a Jung Jinsu, a stoic chairman of a religious group called the New Truth that believes the monsters are attacking sinners. Yoo Ah-in is excellent in this role that has him delivering cryptic words of faith with a certain deadness in his eyes, making him all the more calming to his rabid supporters, especially as more deadly decrees start to happen. They believe he is right when he says that the attacks are related to someone’s great sin. The New Truth has inspired its own QAnon-like media following with a radical group called The Arrowhead, who are riled up broadcast-by-broadcast by a screeching man named Dongwook (Kim Do-yoon). From a gaming chair, he makes grandiose assumptions about why so-and-so received a decree, and shows how the mania of fear can lead to witch hunts. Members of the Arrowhead, usually teenagers with baseball bats, then go out hunting.
Numerous people get in the crosshairs of Jung Jinsu and the New Truth and the Arrowhead, including a lawyer named Min Hyejin (Kim Hyun-joo), who initially tries to help a doomed woman who receives a decree and decides to let the New Truth broadcast her death. (It’s a staggering scene that allows the madness of “Hellbound” to grow tenfold.) Min Hyejin has a surprising and heavily rewarding character arc, as many people do in this top-tier ensemble—along with how the series jumps time, it’s never certain where a character will be in the next episode, or if they’ll return.
It makes more and more sense watching “Hellbound” that it comes from the director of “Train to Busan,” as like that zombie film, he now uses human beings and the rabid effect of fearful belief for potent thrills. And the series’ bursts of action, which can surprise you just like the script’s narrative developments, immerse you in the chaos with shaky camera work and long takes. “Hellbound” ensures that while the pummeling monsters stubbornly remain a mystery, the brutality that human beings commit to each other always hurts.
“Hellbound” has an exciting sense of growth across six episodes that shows how the New Truth’s ideas take over. But the script can be a little too busy with plotting its conspiracies, and also with its terror, so much that one battle royale at a police station early on is just forgotten about, despite its initial visual promise. There’s also a little too much telling and not showing when it comes to the impact of this new teaching—we hear that half the world has been caught up in New Truth fever, but hardly get a nervous sense of it. Similarly, the show’s dramatic goals can be out of reach, as with an albeit harrowing emotional subplot in the second half involving a baby, that then gets redundant with tearful monologues and sad music. It’s the kind of stuff that one hopes is sharpened if there is a season two.
Co-written with Choi Gyu-seok, “Hellbound” is the kind of horror series that visibly grows with each episode, while it becomes apparent how much the storytellers have considered the scenario at hand in a very grounded sense. They wrestle with the inevitable media frenzy, the shame people would feel after getting a decree, the institutions that would try to capitalize on it, and more. It becomes a fascinating entry into stories about faith, while not having a self-seriousness to its ideas. The wrath monster trio might be absurd, but the madness within “Hellbound” is extremely believable.
All of season one screened for review. “Hellbound” is now playing on Netflix.