Title: Hell House
Director: George Ratliff
UK Availability: None. Bought a used US copy on Amazon.
“I wish you didn’t have to see the things you’re gonna see.”
Opening with the line above, we’re addressed by Rev. Tim Ferguson, speaking against a brilliant white background as though he is communicating with us from a higher plane. He has a singular mission; make people aware of the sins that they’re committing and effect change before it’s too late. His method? A haunted house of course!
Hell House follows the Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas as they prepare for the latest iteration of their annual Hell House. It’s a haunt where the fantastic is swapped out for real world evils such as murder and rape and then more dubious topics such as AIDs and abortion.
The theme for Hell House X (the focus of the film) is The Walking Dead. The concept being that those that haven’t accepted Jesus into their lives are spiritually dead though they are physically alive. The documentary begins at the first planning meeting for the event where scenes featuring a school suicide and a lesbian couple at a bar are bandied about.
The movie suffers slightly from not having much of a human anchor, we don’t spend too long with anyone behind the scenes of the event and, as a result, the focus mainly rests on Hell House itself. Whilst I personally felt uneasy at some of the ideas that Hell House was presenting, we see little of the organisers’ reasoning for creating the attraction. There’s nothing probed beyond the expected fire and brimstone cliché of religious zealots and, as such, it feels a bit light. It almost comes across as being as judgemental towards the church as the church is to the ‘sinning’ masses. Wherever your beliefs lie, a documentary should always strive to offer a balanced view.
As for Hell House itself, it covers the spectrum; from being somewhat responsible (addressing drunk driving) to irresponsible (condemning a girl for committing suicide after she had been gang-raped and had a history of childhood abuse by her father). There’s the ridiculous (a scene surrounding the occult features and, in conceiving this scene, they draw some comparison to the role-playing game Magic: The Gathering, deeming it a ‘gateway’). Then there is the unbelievably offensive (the somewhat joyous glee that someone takes from a character that is on his deathbed, dying from AIDs because he was gay).
The church’s judgement of guests passing through the attraction is uncomfortable. They consistently refer to attendees as ‘The Lost’ and views the large crowds that gather as their harvest. Before you can leave the haunt, you have to listen to a speech from a church member who offers you two exits from Hell House. One is straight out if you either don’t care or feel that you’re already in good stead religiously. The other leads to a prayer group where, basically, conversion is attempted. And of course, they try and guilt the audience into walking into that room. This was my biggest problem with Hell House. They’re charging entry, it’s unfair to put people in an awkward and manipulative situation. And in a final twist, it turns out that there is actually only one exit so those who refused the prayer group have to guiltily walk through it anyway!
Overall, Hell House is an eye-opening, enjoyable film but you can’t help but feel that there’s a lot more to the story that could be told. I would have liked the film to explore the meatier notions that it presents rather than playing the ‘they’re crazy religious zealots’ card and sticking with that. I like the idea that a haunt can be set up for a purpose greater than a simple entertainment facility but, in this case, it’s a bit misguided.
Deleted Demons Scene – A short clip of various church members talking about demons and their beliefs regarding them. It doesn’t really add anything and can see why it was deleted.
“This American Life” – This is, essentially, a condensed version of the documentary, a 15 min audio only piece. The biggest problem with this material is that it highlights how little else the feature film brings to the table despite being about five times the length. It also brings up stuff that I would have expected to see in the full-length documentary.
Hell House award ceremony – A straight repeat (except with visuals) of the final minutes of This American Life, showing one of the actresses accepting her award for best suicide scene. It turns out that after the season has ended, Hell House holds an Oscars alike awards night for the cast/crew of the event.
The Devil Made Me Do It (1999) – This 10 min mini-doc was used to raise the financing for the feature length version. However, it ends up demonstrating the same material as This American Life and the Hell House documentary, rendering its presence redundant. All the material in the extras basically repeat themselves and don’t add anything of value or supplement the film in any meaningful way.
Theatrical Trailer – You can view this here:
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