Hell House


Documentary. USA, 2001. Not Rated. 85 minutes.

Music: Bubba and Matthew Kadane
Cinematographer: Jawad Metni
Producers: Zachary Mortensen, Selina Lewis Davidson
Director: George Ratliff


Grade: B Review by Jeff Vorndam

R eligion, at its most primitive level, is driven by fear. Man is restrained by fear of punishment and encouraged by the promise of a blissful afterlife. In this crude conception of the universe, understanding and obeying God's will is the only way to escape eternal pain and suffering. Such is the reasoning of the designers of the Hell House, a high-concept haunted house that has been scaring people into church since 1990. George Ratliff's documentary follows the conception, construction, and performance of the Halloween 2000 edition of Hell House, titled "Hell House X--Waking the Dead."

Hell House differs from the typical haunted house by incorporating a message into its show. That message is, unequivocally, that you are going to hell unless you join the Trinity Assembly of God church and pray for your soul. Instead of zombies or vampires lunging from the shadows, Hell House attempts to shock guests with doses of reality, ranging from the re-enactment of a classroom shooting to a glimpse of Satanists doing that baby-sacrificing thing they do so well. The house (actually houses, the complex sprawls into multiple buildings erected just for the event) depicts the church's idea of hell--the eternal damnation of those who drank, did drugs, committed suicide, had abortions, or were homosexual. Each room is a graphic representation of the "offense," and at the end there's a room where the offenders are all writhing in pain, screaming their regret at having led sinful lives. From there the guests are taken to a final location where they are given a choice: come through the door and pray with us, or leave through the exit as you were (presumably, damned). Apparently, this works as an effective membership drive for the church.

Though the pay-off of the film is seeing the concept in action, much of Hell House is devoted to the preparation for the event and the lives of some of its participants. Several months in advance, the Hell House organizers meet and brainstorm ideas.the show at Hell House One of them thinks this year's Hell House should counsel visitors on the dangers of the rave scene. The others, probably having no idea what he's talking about, seize on this idea as an example of how current and relevant their program is. Hell House's rave scene, as it ultimately is played, depicts a first-time rave attendee's descent into drugs, rape, and suicide.

Kids from the church-affiliated high school flock to audition for roles in the haunted house. "Abortion girl" is the juiciest role. Not only does the actor get to splatter herself with blood, but also she has a lengthy monologue railing against her sin, leading to a hysterical plea for mercy when the grim reaper comes to take her to hell. Ratliff and crew have been focusing on the family of Alex, the girl who wins the part of Abortion Girl. Her father, John Cassar, is raising the family himself after his wife left him for "someone on the Internet." The family includes three children, one of whom has cerebral palsy. When the child goes into convulsions early one morning, John prays while waiting for the ambulance to arrive. As the fit subsides, John turns to the camera and remarks that it has recorded the hand of God.

Usually in a film like this, the filmmaker edits the film to make to make the subjects look like buffoons. Ratliff's style is admirably poker-faced. He affords his subjects their dignity and lets them speak without cutting their sentences on awkward beats or juxtaposing their words with ironic images. It's left to the audience to decide whether the church's activities are commendable or insidious. The unfortunate side effect is that this film is unpersuasive. Those who go into it with a perception of the church members as dangerous loonies will likely leave that way. Those who come with the opinion that what Hell House does is right will feel justified. If you haven't made up your mind, Hell House isn't going to push you one way or the other.

Hell House played at the 45th San Francisco International Film Festival on April 28, April 30, and May 1, 2002.

Review © April 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Image 2000 Mixed Greens. All Rights Reserved.

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