Title: Hell House
Director: George Ratliff
Plot: Documentary following the youth group of the Cedar Hill Trinity Church based in Cedar Hill, Texas who on Halloween put on a “Hell House” in their attempt to save the souls of the local residents who attend the event.
Review: It constantly surprises me how the Christian community view the issue of censorship where often the more radical members will call for the banning or censoring of anything that they see not fitting within their belief structure and has previously lead to things such Mary Whitehouse spearheading the campaigning which lead to the “Video Nasties Act”. However bizarrely such concerns over censorship don’t seemingly apply when it in somehow links to their own belief as highlighted by various groups calling for the rating of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” to be lowered so their kids could see it, despite it containing some truly brutal and horrific scenes which seemingly they had no qualms about exposing their kids to.
Another prime example of this is the group at the centre of this documentary, whose “Hell House” see’s them putting on performances depicting scenes of high school shootings, abortion and AIDS to name but a few of the controversial topics which the group are happy to cover as part of their drive to increase attendance at church services by seemingly terrorising the local population with the prospect of going to hell.
One of more surprising aspect of the documentary is that director George Ratliff does not set out to belittle or make fun of his subject, the way that so many films focusing on the more radical Christian groups have previously done in the past. Instead Ratliff is happy to just play the observer and provide a platform for them to explain their reasons for putting on such a grotesque spectacle especially one which seemingly views no topic as being too controversial to be featured as highlighted by one of the group questioning the inclusion of high school shootings so soon after Columbine only for another to insist that it only makes it only the more relevant for their cause. It should be noted though that despite the occasional extreme opinion cast by the group they are largely painted as being full of good intention as well as truly believing that what they are doing is the Lord’s work.
Following the process in its entirety we join the group in their planning stages, before heading into the auditions for cast members who will be acting out the various grim scenes with there seemingly being no shortage of fresh faced congregation members eager to play the role of the girl raver whose date raped or the guy dying of AIDS. From here its on to the building of the “Hell House” which they build from the ground up constructing a whole house to stage their production which is honestly nothing short of impressive much like the size of the crowd that they manage to attract most drawn in by the prospect of a shocking or controversial spectacle than perhaps the intended religious aspect.
The real trick of the “Hell House” though after they have finished traumatising each group with their graphic performances is to offer the group at chance at salvation from their sin by joining members of their church for prayer and bible study. As to be expected some of the performances spark less than favourable reactions from some of the people attending who come away feeling that someone is dammed instantly for being gay or that the message is more mixed than the organisers would believe it to be. However instead of the expected big showdown and shouting match between the two groups we expect it to be, we instead get a surprisingly calm discussion as one of the organisers states that
“damnation is ultimately a matter of a personal decision whether or not to accept God, regardless of the misfortunes of one’s circumstances.”
A reminder that this group are far from the radical Christian groups we have come to expect from the protest held by the Westborough Baptist Church documentaries like this and in particular “Jesus Camp” which the initial reaction is to draw comparison to but outside of the performances being graphic and certainly questionable in taste the church seemingly have no agenda outside of spreading their message and ultimately recruiting more parishioners to their church.
A fascinating documentary which manages to be insightful about its subject without feeling the need for vilification, while providing a Halloween viewing alternative from the usual horror fare