Sunday, February 10, 2008

George Ratliff, "Hell House" (2001).

Last Friday I packed in an entire weekend's worth of going out, and so I was perfectly satisfied to go over to a friend's house and watch a movie on Saturday. I brought with me a selection of documentaries that I thought would be of interest to the people that I knew would be there. It's a lot of fun to share things with folks that they'd otherwise have little chance to see, and it fulfills my purpose of purchasing DVD's rather than renting them. After watching the first choice, I decided that I'd pick the follow-up movie. I hadn't seen Hell House in a long time, and I was looking forward to revisiting the story in like-minded company. No one else had even heard of it before. Given the particular makeup of our small crowd, I believed that this feature would be alternatively edifying, amusing, disturbing, and irritating.

Hell House (2001) , directed by George Ratliff, examines the phenomena of a haunted house constructed and operated by a Pentecostal Church. On its surface, the concept sounds completely bizarre. Most fundamentalist Christian sects condemn Halloween as a Pagan holiday meant to subvert morality. But instead of condemning the holiday, Trinity Church in Dallas has found a way to use it to its advantage. Every year a multitude of organizations offer walk-throughs which, in keeping with the spirit of the time of year, are meant to scare the crap out of anyone willing to pay the admission price. These attractions are particularly appealing to young folks, who are usually limited in the type of thrills they are offered. Trinity Church is well aware of this dynamic, and is perfectly willing to exploit it- in order to save souls.

This project requires months of preparation and a multitude of volunteers. George Ratliff documents every step along the way. It all starts with a brainstorming session among veterans of former productions. They work out several "scenes"- each of which represent some type of sinful behavior, and the kinds of extreme consequences that can result. These vary from a drunk-driving scene complete with gory fatalities, to a hospital room with an AIDS patient and an abortion gone horribly wrong. There are school shootings, drug deals turned violent, and rape scenes. These tableau often go so far over the top that they are emotionally disturbing. They are not meant to be "fun" in any way. They are supposed to serve as cautionary messages to those who would choose to break God's rules. Naturally they often reflect the simple stereotypes that many fundamentalist Christians are so fond of espousing.

In each of these vignettes, there are histrionic actors who have auditioned for the highly-coveted roles. Ratliff makes a point of including these auditions in the documentary. It is very surreal to watch these clean-cut, wholesome Bible-Belters assume the personalities of criminals and other ne'er-do-wells. Seeing their eyes light up with excitement as they speak about wanting to be the "rape girl" or "demon" in this year's Hell House is illuminating in a very strange way. Actually, a lot is conveyed through the depictions of the "fallen" that they hope to represent. They display a stream of unintentionally humorous misconceptions about what they politely refer to as "alternative" lifestyles (especially funny is the crimson-hued Star of David that some eager beaver mistakenly painted to convey a pentagram in the "occult scene"). The entire endeavor is fittingly ironic because Pentecostals themselves seem so alien to the uninitiated. Ratliff has included footage of their church services, in which they dance to their own version of contemporary "rock music", flail about, and speak in tongues.

The climax of the Hell House experience is being shepherded into a wood-paneled room, and being exposed to the hard sell of conversion. A drill-sergeant-like preacher is there to confront all the shocked patrons into re-examining their relationship with "God". Those who have not yet been "saved" are pressured to enter one last well-lit chamber, where they will meet church representatives anxious to bring them into the glory of faith. Others file out into the dark world of their doomed ordinary lives... their pockets $7 lighter than when they first entered. The apparent inconsistencies between the protests that fundamentalists direct toward violence and sex in media, and the explicit nature of their own attempts to scare people into Christ's arms, shine with a heavenly brightness. Aside from a few very subtle hints, the filmmakers of Hell House make a solid effort not to reveal their biases. If you watch it, I have a feeling you'll have difficulty containing your own.

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