HELL HOUSE is one of the scariest movies of 2002--and it's
not even technically a horror movie. It's a documentary about the controversial
"Hell House" of Cedar Hill, TX, a Christian-run Halloween maze that replaces the
standard ghosts and ghouls with grim (and often unintentionally hilarious)
scenarios illustrating "evils" like abortion, homosexuality and suicide.
The digitally shot HELL HOUSE may be standard
documentary fodder, but the outrageous, almost too-good-to-be-true subject
matter makes it a must-see. It was quite a hit on the festival circuit, and as
of this writing (November '02) is currently making the rounds of arthouse
theaters; needless to say, if you get the chance to catch this film you're
advised to do so ASAP!
The Trinity Assembly of God church backed Hell House
was in its tenth year when this film was shot, and a postscript proclaims that
hundreds more are being constructed around the country. We're also informed
that some 15,000 folks have been "converted" because of what they witnessed in
How does such an establishment operate? Well...
The film relates its twisted-but-true tale by taking us
through the preparation, audition and construction process that took place in
the months preceding Hell House's October 2000 debut. We meet the folks behind
Hell house, a bunch of disarmingly nice guys as it turns out, all of who seem
sincere in their desire to spread the word of Jaaaay-zus. Some of the
most memorable sequences occur early on, like the sight of one of Hell House's
pubescent cast members going on a date with a paper bag over her head to keep it
from getting rained on, and a cast and crew meeting that starts out as a group
prayer and ends with everybody rolling on the floor speaking in tongues.
The final third depicts Hell House's opening night,
with dozens of gullible patrons, most of them teenagers, shuttled out to the
Hell House (actually a retrofitted school) where they witness a number of
gruesome sights. A distraught teen shoots himself in a classroom. A girl
bleeds to death from taking an abortion pill and another is lured to the Dark
Side by Harry Potter books. A guy is shot in a botched drug deal and another
dies of AIDS (to the accompaniment of a cackling demon). And so on. The maze
ends up in Hell, of course, with all the cast members bound and tortured by a
Marilyn Manson-look alike who cavorts under a giant star of David.
more! Once it's all over a guy ushers patrons into a "prayer hall" where they
can officially ask Jesus Christ into their hearts, but only if they do it in the
prescribed six seconds the guy counts down for 'em! Those who choose to stay
are apparently doomed for eternity (shucks).
The filmmakers also take us behind the scenes to
view the technical challenges faced by Hell House's staff, who must usher guests
through the maze amidst precisely coordinated voice-overs and special effects.
A BIG laugh is occasioned by a technician nonchalantly directing one of his
staff to "go to Hell" and retrieve a prop.
Part of the beauty of the direction, by the veteran
documentarian George Ratliff, is the way it preaches to the converted on both
sides of the spectrum; it can be viewed as a celebration of some committed
religiosos or a cautionary look at the dark side of evangelical Christianity.
It's unlikely to change your slant on the subject (if you haven't figured it out
already, I side with the latter view), but it's quite a spectacle either way.
The filmmaking is pretty standard documentary stuff:
talking head interviews alternating with grainy hand-held camerawork. Ratliff
was wise in letting his subjects speak for themselves and keeping his direction
low-key. Far from the evangelical kooks you might expect, the folks behind Hell
House are sincere, committed and quite personable individuals, impossible to
dismiss (no matter how much you might want to). Documentaries the world over
proclaim their "objectivity," but this is one of the few I've seen recently that
really is objective, and is, furthermore, NOT "just a movie."
Director: George Ratliff
Producers: Zachary Mortensen, George Ratliff, Selina Lewis Davidson
Cinematographer: Jawad Metni
Editor: Michael LaHaie