Hell House. Director: George Ratliff. Producers: Zachary Mortensen, Selina Lewis-Davidson, George Ratliff. Mixed Greens, released 2001. Unrated. Limited theatrical release through November 2002. Phone 212-331-8888; www.mixedgreens.com.
A few years back, George Ratliff directed Plutonium Circus, a must-see documentary about the Pantex plutonium facility near his hometown of Amarillo, Texas. It was a marvel of gentle comedy and serious politics. Now he's back, and he's still got a great touch with contentious material. His topic this time is a Halloween horror project put on by a church in Cedar Hill, Texas. In the fall of 2000, the Trinity Church of the Assembly of God produced Hell House X: The Walking Dead, a series of vignettes presenting graphic dramatizations of the behaviors and choices that put one on the inexorable road to Hell.
Those categories of choices, as defined by Trinity's congregants, are fairly broad. They range from predictable evils of homosexuality, raves, drugs, and abortion -- which are presented as though each must is a logical gateway leading to the other -- to the occult, as personified by them the form of Harry Potter, the Goosebumps series, and the card game Magic: The Gathering. Their Hell House also includes scenes dealing with incest, suicide, and family violence, seen from the evangelical Christian perspective as sinful rejections of God. What brought the Trinity Church Hell House into the national spotlight, however, was controversy over its 1999 depiction of a school shooting, a scene based on the Columbine High killings in Littleton, Colorado. Nor was not it the first time Trinity snatched a scene from the headlines; in 1998, members performed a scene based on Paducah, Kentucky's school shooting. (I have no idea what's on their program this fall, but with the ongoing news reports about sexual abuse by some Catholic priests, I can only shudder to think.)
Why does this small army -- and this is a Cecil B. DeMille-scale production -- amass every fall to present a sort of spiritual Scared Straight?
The film opens with pastor Jim Hennesy explaining that they are each called to be "like a watchman, warning someone of danger" about what our culture faces. They do it "to reach the lost," and because if they didn't, they'd be as culpable for our sins as we are. Their mission: "to infect the culture."
For the past 11 years, they have infected the culture in the amount of upwards of 75,000 attendees. They estimate they've reaped a harvest of 15,000 conversions to Christ. More to the point than telling us theology, Hell House shows us what makes Trinity tick, filming prayerful emotion and joyful service to God.
Director Ratliff got lucky with an incredible amount of access to the planning committee's meetings and to the household of a family deeply involved in Hell House. The movie spends about equal time on the run-up to opening night and the actual presentation. Hell House is a fabulous two-fer. On the one hand, it's a fascinating working anthropological document on the cultural phenomenon of evangelism. But it's also -- let's face it -- a movie that lets us look behind the scenes, a movie about theater. Starting in August, with the decisions about which scenes to include in the program, through scripting, auditions, construction, rehearsals, security, computer-editing the soundtrack, and finally, October's performances, we're dealing with witnessing a really big show here.
Hell House doesn't just document the preparations. It spends time with individual congregants, letting them tell the stories of how they live their faith. At such times, it's even a pretty little film. All of the church members appear standing before a white background for their interviews. The faint breeze and stark, disembodying surroundings make them look like they're already in heaven's waiting room.
We progress through these stages of production with a very likable guide -- John Cassar, a single father of four, two of whom are special-needs kids. We meet the Cassar family as they go through their early morning routine, on a day that turns out to be anything but. The youngest, who suffers from cerebral palsy, has a seizure. John calls 911, but also touches his son and calls on God. The seizure ends swiftly, and John exults, "I spoke the word of God, and you came out of your seizure, son." He then turns to the camera: "You saw it." The filmmakers keep mum.
While the director does not keep mum throughout the film, he takes care to avoid the shouting a less skilled filmmaker might have indulged in. Ratliff has worked a minor miracle in Hell House. He clearly has a point of view. Shrewdly, he does nothing to obscure that fact. He just as shrewdly does nothing to ridicule his subjects, resisting the temptation to play gotcha.
So do these Pentecostals look ridiculous? Sometimes, but no more, on average, than anyone else who has a camera shoved in their faces. The important thing here is that when anyone does look ridiculous -- be it the church members or a group of foul-mouthed Hell House visitors who berate them -- Ratliff just lets it happen without editing or camera tricks that indicate what you're supposed to think about what you see and hear. This is mature filmmaking and graceful handling of difficult subject matter, and the proof is in the pudding: The church members liked the documentary and an audience full of film-festival hipsters (most doubtless far from Pentecostal in their views) did too.
Roxanne Bogucka is senior editor, cinema, for hybridmagazine.com, where portions of this review appeared previously.