Friday, August 19, 2005

Hell House (Ratliff, 2001)

A documentary about a Christian haunted house in Texas that lures hoardes of people every year to recoil at visions of botched abortions, suicides, domestic abuse and AIDS-related deaths, Hell House is kind of like Waiting for Guffman meets The 700 Club. As a film, Hell House is pretty straightforward, as director George Ratliff refrains voice-over or much that might be characterized as an artistic flourish. However, in this particular case, it seems to be the right choice. After all, when a black-cloaked figure with a skull mask gleefully mocks an AIDS victim lying on his death bed for engaging in homosexual activity, what more really needs to be said. Still, there are a few clever moments of juxtaposition, most notably a prayer rally that leads us to wonder whether the church members make as much of an effort to 'perform' the saint as they do in performing the sinner for the annual freak show.

There are at least a couple things I take away from Hell House. The first is the discouraging degree to which hate sells, particularly when sensationalized and dressed up as righteousness. I find it hard to believe that all of the visitors that walk through the Trinity Hell House endorse a world view as extreme as they one they pay to witness. Yet, they pay their seven dollars and soak it up anyway. Is it for camp value? Do they really feel that they are hearing a legitimate perspective? What is the appeal of spirtituality mixed with a healthy dose of perverse gore? The second thing I take away from the film is how much we reveal about ourselves when we give our nightmares concrete form. In bringing their vision of 'sin' to life, the performers create 'characters' that barely register as recognizably human. Indeed, they are flippantly referred to by titles like 'abortion girl' or 'suicide girl'. Unlike regular actors who are trained to approach even the most vile character with some level of compassion, the Trinity Hell House performers fuel their performances with contempt.

Once again, those looking for a technically innovative documentary (a la Errol Morris) will not find much here to knock their socks off. Ratliff scores most of his points for choosing a captivating and volatile subject. But those who want to see a disturbing, yet humorous picture of good ol' fashioned religious fanaticism in America will definitely want to give it a watch.



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