Texas-born documentarian George Rattliff's even-handed film chronicles the making of a Christian "Hell House," an annual event staged on Halloween by Trinity Church of Cedar Hills, Tex., a pentacostal house of worship that uses Halloween as an opportunity to scare holiday thrill and chill seekers onto the path of righteousness. Though the film stops short...read more
Texas-born documentarian George Rattliff's even-handed film chronicles the making of a Christian "Hell House," an annual event staged on Halloween by Trinity Church of Cedar Hills, Tex., a pentacostal house of worship that uses Halloween as an opportunity to scare holiday thrill and chill seekers onto the path of righteousness. Though the film stops short of endorsing Trinity's fire-and-brimstone brand of witnessing, it also refrains from mocking the earnest participants who spend the better part of two months building the physical Hell House — actually a cluster of connected trailers — and scripting, staging, costuming and casting elaborate skits that depict such sinful behaviors as drinking and drug-taking, family violence, suicide, homosexuality, abortion and dabbling in the occult through fantasy-role playing games and reading Harry Potter novels. All, of course, lead straight to eternal damnation. Alerted to Trinity's Hell House by a 1999 New York Times article that reported on that year's timely Columbine school massacre-inspired skit, Ratliff and his crew shot the church's tenth annual Hell House in 2000, interviewing participants and following the process from conception through opening. Interspersed with the verité-style footage are direct-interview sequences shot against a stark white background in natural light, in which church members discuss their personal beliefs and experiences of angels, demons and God's influence in their day-to-day lives. Dramatic shape is provided by the experiences of the Cassar family, headed by single-father John. Abandoned by his wife for a lover she met online, Cassar tends to four children (two with serious medical problems) designs the event's website and waits anxiously as his perky cheerleader daughter, Alex, goes out for the coveted role of "abortion girl" even as his family's crises inspire another skit. Some of what Ratliff captures is flat-out comical, like clueless church members struggling to get the terminology of secular occultism right, or the sequences in which the self-appointed overseer of a skit about the perils of the rave scene obsessing over every detail of the music and decor. Others verge on the surreal: The audition sequences could depict high school students anywhere trying out for the drama club production of My Fair Lady, except that their monologues begin with confessions of sinfulness and end in histrionics that wouldn't be out of place on a soap opera or The Jerry Springer Show. For anyone unfamiliar with pentacostal practices in general and theatrical phenomenon of Hell Houses in particular, it's an eye-opener.
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