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Panic Fest Review: Claustrophobia and Dread Take Center Stage in JEFFREY'S HELL

A man is cave diving and has a light shown on him
Image courtesy of IMDB

By Amylou Ahava

Welcome to Hell! Playing at Panic Fest 2024, director Aaron Irons goes spelunking into the depths of horror with his new film JEFFREY’S HELL. This found-footage thriller explores the eerie Appalachian folklore surrounding the prophetically named area of wilderness called Jeffrey's Hell. It blends mockumentary and existential terror elements to create a uniquely suffocating experience. As Irons navigates the treacherous cave, the film touches on themes of isolation, lack of direction, and the fear of what lurks in the dark. Through tense storytelling and claustrophobic camerawork, JEFFREY’S HELL plans to drag you into the depths of the earth and give you no hope of ever returning.

In a reality show-style confessional, Aaron Irons (played by himself) begins the movie by discussing how his childhood fascination with space inspired him to apply for the Mars One program in 2012. This program was essentially created to send people to Mars to colonize it with the plan to never return to Earth. While this trip into space turned out to be a scam, the finality of the mission made Aaron realize he didn’t care about his life’s current trajectory and didn’t care if he disappeared from the planet. So, he tells the camera he knows he is not going to Mars, but he is going somewhere. Instead of interplanetary exploration, he chose a more local destination as he became hyper-focused on a small part of the Appalachian wilderness known as “Jeffery’s Hell.” The film then plays out as a documentary explaining Aaron’s journey into the wilderness and his eventual disappearance. 

The legend behind the name of Jeffrey’s Hell involves a man named Ebenezer Jeffery, who disappeared into the woods while chasing after his dogs. Witnesses claimed he yelled he would chase his dogs to hell before giving up on them, and now some believe that is where he went. Aaron hopes to find a mysterious cave within this patch of wilderness. So, like a bloodhound hot on a trail, Aaron goes barreling into the underbrush all alone. As Aaron ventures deeper into the wilderness, the cave becomes a metaphor for his inner demons as it highlights the psychological depth of the film's horror.

The film plays on the found footage subgenre with clips of Aaron mixed together with interviews of the people in Aaron’s life. The interviews include cast and crew members from Aaron’s previous film (Chest) and local forest rangers. The film adds a level of meta-ness because the documentary portion of the movie references Iron’s other film, which also takes place in the Appalachian mountains (almost as if JEFFREY’S HELL provides the behind-the-scenes footage from Chest). Everyone who associated with Aaron knew he was not an expert hiker. Still, as more of the story becomes uncovered, the more the viewer realizes the disappearance is more conspiratory than a simple idiot refusing to buy a compass. 

The film's first half relies heavily on establishing the main character through interviews and establishing the cave as its own character. In the second half we follow Aaron as he enters the cave and journeys deep into the depths. Similar to the film As Above So Below,  the film explores the psychological depths of its characters within an underground landscape and uses the setting as a metaphor for the darkness within the human mind. However,  JEFFREY’S HELL distinguishes itself by offering incredibly realistic cave footage and immerses viewers in the confining and treacherous environment. Despite being deep within the earth, the story still cleverly connects Aaron's failed mission to Mars with his exploration of the cave, which highlights his desire for isolation and introspection. While strangeness follows Aaron throughout the cave, the claustrophobicness of the cave is enough to make any viewer feel short of breath as the passages become narrower and narrower. 

 JEFFREY’S HELL effectively uses the found-footage format to immerse viewers in the suspenseful journey of its protagonist as he navigates the eerie depths of the cave. The monsters lurking within the cave (and within Aaron’s mind) add psychological depth to the narrative, and the extra bit of meta-ness helps blur the lines between reality and nightmare. But most of all, the claustrophobic atmosphere of the cave is expertly captured and will most likely evoke a feeling of dread in most of the audience.


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