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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 Package
     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 Hell House.
     How does such an establishment operate?  Well...

The Story
     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.
     But there
's 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.

The Direction
     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."

Vital Statistics

Cantina Pictures

Director: George Ratliff
Producers: Zachary Mortensen, George Ratliff, Selina Lewis Davidson
Cinematographer: Jawad Metni
Editor: Michael LaHaie

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