2001, NR, 84 min. Directed by George Ratliff.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., May 10, 2002
Any press is good press, right? One suspects that's why the Dallas-area Trinity Assembly of God Church gave Texan documentarian George Ratliff an all-access pass to the planning and execution of their annual Hell House. Hell House is your typical Halloween spook show -- only, instead of goblins and ghoulies, the frights come from graphic scenes of suicide, date rape, incest, and botched abortions. The point is to scare Hell House visitors into salvation, which is why the ride ends with the option of praying with members of the Pentecostal church. The scarier stuff, however, takes place behind the scenes, in the months-long preparation for the big show. Frankly, it's flabbergasting to see how much time, money, and effort the Hell House creators devote to the lavish re-enactment of the sins they preach against. But then, it's all about getting the word out, a goal that supersedes any concerns over sensitivity. One planner worries that a proposed Hell House suicide scene will remind the media of Columbine, which was re-created the prior year at Hell House to public outcry and national media attention; a church leader briskly responds, “I don't have a problem with that.” Ratliff's camera weaves in and out of these script meetings, as well as the Hell House construction and auditions. (The scene in which anxious kids hover around the posted cast list plays surreally close to your average high school Drama Club production -- only here, hopefuls squeal out: “Abortion girl! I got it!”) There are also slight dips into congregants' lives, a tactic that is occasionally terribly moving -- one woman describes the moment in which she forgave her rapist -- but mostly the asides are unilluminating. Subjects reveal only as much as they choose to; you get the feeling Ratliff didn't want to push too hard. His film is assiduously objective -- a frustrating, but honorable approach. As a liberal and a skeptic, I wanted the filmmaker to confirm my suspicion that the Hell House gang was horribly wrong-headed; I wanted Ratliff to cock his head to the audience and murmur, “Can you believe these guys?” But, to his credit, Ratliff won't take the bait. He stoically resists editorializing the action, and any moral pronouncements will have to come from the audience. In the end, there's fodder here for both camps. Those in line with the Pentecostals will find evidence of both its earnest dedication to the conversion of “lost” souls and the solace it has provided said souls. There's ammunition for cynics, too; the part of me that bristles at this kind of spiritual terrorism, the firebombing of non-believers with sensational scare tactics, that part delighted when that same church leader stole a glance at the camera while speaking in tongues. The final third of the film is devoted to scenes from the two-week-long production, during which more than 10,000 people pass through the fire-&-brimstoned halls of Hell House. Here, Ratliff's film becomes more or less a stageplay, with brief glimpses at how much of a money-making endeavor the event is (a vendor hawks nachos to those waiting in line). It rubs a little voyeuristically, actually, for those of us who scowl at Hell House -- we get to see what all the fuss is about, without having to suffer the embarrassing silence at the end of the ride when the preacher asks if we want to be saved. That's a question each viewer will have to ask himself. Even if Ratliff's film doesn't dig deeply enough, it will surely start a dialogue as the closing credits roll … which no doubt will please both filmmaker and subject.