For many years now Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas has been staging it's annual Halloween Hell House, a haunted house of their Pentecostal vision of what will get you into Hell. Some of these things include suicide, abortion, being gay, dabbling in the occult, and they really came to national attention by making their school shooting scene resemble the Columbine massacre a mere six months after that tragedy. They also manage to implicate various other bits of society, like raves as being a wrong way of life- a girl attending a rave is given a date rape drug at one and then is gang raped which leads to her committing suicide, so while its the suicide that leads her to Hell, its the rave culture that steered her there. In the final room you are given two options to exit, you may leave and sit in a room with church members and accept Jesus or you can just leave period, tantamount to accepting the damnation you've just toured. There is only one exit though, so those wanting redemption and the unwilling to convert have to go through the same room
Like most haunted houses it does look very cheesy and cheap. The cast of teens and adults who stage the various scenes aren't exactly dramatic talents but neither is the material. But, with an entire ministry and an agenda behind it, there is quite a bit more sweat and passion put into the Hell House than your average haunted house. After all, they are not just scaring souls, they are trying to save them.
Actually, these scare tactics aren't anything new. In more uncivilized times, you had the flagellants who went from town to town prophesizing the end times and the world being overrun by sin as they whipped themselves in public displays of repentance. And, the method of suckering in pedestrians with shock value actually goes back to the very first churches, which had carvings on the outside depicting the likes of demons dismembering people or the devil as a serpent raping Eve. Some even went so far by just having carvings of genitalia, thus luring in the unsuspecting by making them think there was something else going on inside other than sermons.
Filmaker George Ratliff doesn't really have a point of view or a central character his doc follows. It is setup just observing how the Hell House comes together, from the early concept stage, the casting, to building the sets, and eventually the month of October when the show is on. Along the way we learn the history of how the Hell House came about, about their Pentecostal church, meet some of the cast, including teens hoping to get prime roles as the "rave suicide girl" or the "abortion girl", a single father who acts as a guide, whose daughter is "abortion girl, and who finds the tale of how his wife left him and his family (she met someone on the Internet) incorporated into the family violence skit, and we also meet the main organizer Tim Ferguson. But, there isn't really a standout personality in the bunch. A keen way to show the participants thoughts on the Hell House and their religion is used by having them questioned in front of a white background, giving a nice surreal feel as the film transitions between the various stages of the tenth Hell Houses' evolution.
Since it is more non-judgmental and observational, Hell House is lacking a real point of view or protagonist to follow. This is the wisest choice in presenting the topic since the conclusions you draw are from the details and your own stance. Yes, all docs should try to be observational and leave it up tot the viewer, but something like say, the excellent Brothers Keeper or Harlan County, USA balances both an observational stance and one that has you steering towards routing for someone. Being a liberal minded gen-x generation guy who was Christian raised (my first eight years of school were at a private Christian school), my feelings towards Trinity Church's actions and faith are going to be vastly different from how they view the doc. Even in terms of anyone in the Christian faith, Pentecostals are barely a notch above snake handlers, and are looked upon as extreme if you are a Catholic, a Baptist, Mormon, Presbyterian, and such. For those that don't know, Pentecostals are a Protestant denomination that began in the early 1900's. They believe in charismata, the laying on of hands and speaking in tongues, two things that make them stand out from other ministries and can seem more cultish and strange.
So, from the film and my own perspective, I got the sense of their conviction but also see it as a blind one and one that demonizes (no pun intended) and is both hypocritical and misinformed. It doesn't take a genius to realize the strangeness of the devout teens reveling in their roles as sinners. Since it is such a big deal, one that they spend all year waiting for and do lots of preparation for, it becomes just another teen social gathering and their excitement is just as much (or more) hormonal as it is pious. And, then of course we get into the black and white areas of sin, where their occult sketch equates the "Goosebumps" and "Harry Potter" books as well as the card game "Magic' as diversions that lead to Satanism and a straight path to Hell. Likewise they prove to be misinformed about the culture they damn and cannot even name the rape drug in the rave sketch, yet they are convinced that it is a common occurrence for girls to be openly drugged and gang raped at a rave (I mean, really, if we're talking about eternal damnation lets have all our facts straight and look up the name of the drug). And, then its odd that they have a boy dying of AIDS on a hospital bed going to Hell, yet one organizer says he "doesn't want to go there" when it is proposed in the script meeting the idea of having homosexual bar being the setting for the skit.
When you're faith tells you widespread sin will lead to the glorious Rapture, of course, then your human desire will have you see rampant sin everywhere. "It's never bee this bad" has always been the Christian motto. History tells us, for hundreds of years the Christian faith has said the final days have been right around the corner. Hell House is just another example of this. They are a driven lot, finding sin in every nook and cranny possible, and under the belief that there are many external influences on the un/semi-faithful that lead to their ruin and damnation, and they want you to know that every Halloween.
The DVD: Plexifilm
Picture: Full-screen. Standard. At first I leaned towards this being video, but it does appear more film processed, so I'm guessing this was shot in 16mm. It is rough. But, hey, it is a documentary, and we all expect these things. that said, I am totally forgiving. SO, I'll just say that the ill lighting leads to some murky images, and the contrast, color, and sharpness don't wield much depth. But, it is after all a low budget documentary, so in that realm it looks just fine with me and the DVD does an adequate job transferring those materials.
Sound: Dolby Stereo 2.0. Once again, I'll just echo my sentiments from the image department. It isn't a wide ranging, all encompassing the audio spectrum presentation but an adequately crisp transfer of the materials given. The score by Matthew and Bubba Kadane of the band Bedhead is appropriately minimalistic and adds a nice touch to the overall tone of the film.
Extras: Chapter Selections--- Trailer--- Liner Notes--- "The Devil Made Me Do It" (13:07). This is a documentary short that Ratcliff made in order to obtain financing for a feature about Hell House. We get to see that Columbine inspired school shooting scene, in which one of the shooters calls it the "Colbine" shootings.--- Deleted Scenes. "Demons" (1:23) and "Hell House Awards Ceremony" (1:30) where we see the Church's mock Oscars and we disturbingly see an award for a teen actress where she says in her acceptance speech, "I couldn't have done it without my rapers..." and "It ended up being a lot of fun..."--- Finally a segment from the radio program "This American Life" (15:18) where Ratliff narrates the tale of making Hell House accompanied by various audio clips from the film.
Conclusion: It is a bit thin as a doc, lasting under an hour and a half. Informative and interesting, but not exactly riving like some of the pinnacles of documentary filmmaking like Paradise Lost or Gates of Heaven. The DVD offers a decent presentation and some good supplements. Documentary buffs will want to pick this one up, but I'm not sure the replay value is high for the casual viewer. Certainly if you are curious, give it a rental or a casual purchase; you're not likely to be disappointed.