2016, NR, 100 min. Directed by Will Allen.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 27, 2016
A documentary about a pseudo-religious cult as seen from the inside out, Holy Hell is engrossing not for the horrors we imagine might ensue – Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate this is not – but because the members of the California-born commune called the “Buddhafield” appear to be so happy and harmless. Led by the Master, aka Michel, a charismatic sprite most often seen displaying his buff bod in Speedos and omnipresent Ray-Bans, the group never counted more than 150 adherents during its 22-year history. Director Will Allen was among those who flocked to Buddhafield early on. An aspiring filmmaker, he became the group’s de facto cinematic chronicler who recorded the Master and his supplicants on a near-daily basis. Those joyously made films here become the counterpoint to more recent interviews with former followers.
Borrowing heavily from Krishna consciousness, this twinkle-eyed guru promised enlightenment via a process he called the “Knowing,” in which the Master’s psychic energy could be transferred to individual members, resulting in inner tranquility and a feeling of pure, transcendent love: ecstasy minus the MDMA.
What with all the peace and love and apparent lack of a downside, it’s not surprising that the majority of Buddhafield adherents were pretty, young SoCal seekers, heavy on the hormones and the promise of permanent inner peace. Although the Master ostensibly pooh-poohed sex, seeking instead “the orgasm of meditation,” the day-to-day reality of the Buddhafield was unsurprisingly highly sexualized. “It became like the Bootyfield,” counters one ex-member who instead describes the Buddhafield as “a spiritual haven for beautiful people who said they weren’t having sex but, in reality, everybody was fucking everybody … on the down low.”
After the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide in 1997 and the ensuing media attention on cults, the paranoid Master hit the road and eventually resettled his people in – wait for it! – Austin, Texas. (Director Allen inserts some priceless footage of the Master and his minions enjoying the waters at Barton Springs.) It’s at this point that dissension in the ranks begins to grow, as ex-members dig up dirt on the charlatan-in-charge. “The Master/Michel” is revealed to be one Jaime “James” Gomez, a would-be Hollywood actor who never hit the big time. (He can be seen in a two-second shot during the finale of Rosemary’s Baby.) A pathological narcissist who “stumbled on the role of a lifetime,” according to another distraught ex-follower, the Master’s actions became increasingly bizarre toward the end of Buddhafield’s 22-year existence as accusations of nonconsensual sex with young, heterosexual members began to surface, eventually shattering the hearts and psyches of everyone involved. Ever placid, the Master denies any wrongdoing or manipulation.
Allen’s film is as much a self-reckoning as it is a cautionary tale for other spiritual seekers, and as such it offers invaluable insights into how cults – and especially cults of personality – function and grow. “Namaste,” for the record, is also an anagram for “Me Satan.”
See “Cult of Personality,” May 27, for our interview with the director.