It should be said up front, for the sake of honesty, that I am not a religious man. The reason that I am not religious is because I absolutely cannot deal with religious people. Anyone who has more than a casual interest in all things holy really grates my cheese, so to speak, and Iím further irked when they try to use the Bible as a blunt instrument to beat down all that disagree with them. Itís these types, these holier-than-thou-or-die-trying fanatics who give a positive life choice a bad name, who are the main attraction in the startling new documentary Hell House.
Hell House chronicles the inception, construction, and grand opening of the titular Hell House, a Christian-themed haunted house that depicts gory scenes of abortion, AIDS, and school shootings, all in the name of converting souls to the righteous path. Lately, thereís been a proliferation of these kind of attractions, but Hell House is far and away the most popular, attracting several thousand people during its October run. Itís staffed and funded completely by the Cedar Hill, Texas-based Trinity Assembly of God Church.
We begin at the initial planning meeting, where various ideas and strategies are being mapped out. Itís a new breed of disturbing to listen to these folks talk about the Columbine incident and whatnot as potential scenes, all at the table gleeful at the prospect that such atrocities had taken place so they could use them as evangelical fodder. Things progress nicely. We hit upon the auditions for the major roles (read: Victims), filled mostly by Trinity High School students, all of whom possessing the smallest amount of acting talent needed to actually be labeled "Talent." The roles are cast, and everyone pitches in to help build the truly mammoth construct that serves as the central edifice for what will become Hell House. Why they couldnít put their copious construction skills to better use, say building shelter for the homeless, is beyond me. I suppose that depicting a life-like abortion is much more saintly than actually helping someone in need. Anyway, the building is built, the lines are learned and the barely contained hatred for all thatís different is sharpened for the big opening night. The multitudes descend and the folk of Cedar Hill are once again thrust into the spotlight; a place preferred when espousing oneís own beliefs, however wrongheaded.
Moving on, letís look at the film as a whole, awfulness of the subjects not withstanding. As a documentary director George Ratliff has created a film that serves one purpose: to make those of us in the audience with a healthy disrespect for a certain subset of America even more disgusted than we already are. There's no question in any sane mind that these people are deeply troubled, delusional even. However, throughout itís 90-minute run, we are only given their side of the story. Iím pretty sure that there are at least one or two people in the town of Cedar Hill who think that these people are a bunch of lunatics and it would have been nice to have an intelligent opinion voiced on the subject. Instead, the closest thing we get is a sullen, clueless rant by a teenage patron of Hell House who, for whatever reason, gets it into his mind that he needs to verbally attack one of the staffers. Itís frustrating to watch this kid, whose heart is somewhat in the right place, get bested by a well-coached member of Trinity, simply because the kid has the eloquence of a tree stump. Rather than hammering home his point with scene after scene of these yokels crying evil at everything that moves, Ratliff should have balanced his argument with a few levelheaded individuals who can tell the difference between immorality and a conflicting opinion. Overall, it leaves the viewer angry and frustrated, wanting a tonic to the hideously misinterpreted word of God that these reality-deprived souls insist on preaching.