As an answer to Halloween and carnival haunted houses in general, the Trinity Assembly of God church in Texas stage an event known as Hell House, where the object is to utilise horrific imagery to persuade the visitors to turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as their Lord and Saviour. Basically a collection of short, lurid plays, the event employs the members of the church and the local religious school as actors, and rails against what it perceives as the evils of the world, from rape and child abuse to suicide and drunk driving. Film maker George Ratliff had previously made a short film on the Hell House, and asked if he could make a feature length documentary version, following the team from organisation to the final staging, and the church accepted his offer.
The people behind the holy happening are all decent, ordinary men and women, and we see their days illustrated with various scenes of home life and interviews. One is a single father who is keen to see his daughter play a role, another is a wrestler who gets to play a villain in the ring, but has a more sympathetic, but still brash, part in the Hell House. It's just when we see them get excited about playing demons, gunmen, and victims of failed abortions and date rape, it's hard not to get ever so slightly disturbed by their religious fervour.
It's to Ratliff's credit that the film doesn't take sides (a deliberate decision on his part), it simply, blandly depicts the people involved without being judgemental, which is more than can be said for the Hell House. What makes it so contentious isn't the gruesome imagery it presents, but its representation of what is good and evil with no middle ground. And the subjects range from offences that nobody could defend, like the child abuse and rape, to such hot topics as abortion, homosexuality, raves and role playing games (which encourage interest in the occult, apparently - throw away those "Magic: The Gathering" cards now!).
The Hell House drew controversy by staging a recreation of the Columbine massacre a mere six months after it happened, and they have a serious interest in being provocative. While the church members have had experience of adultery, you wonder how much experience of other perceived ills such as abortion, drugs or suicide they have had. They don't seem willing to understand that not everything will be solved by religion, but there's no denying the strength of their belief. One teenage daughter's idea of a date is to take her boyfriend to a sermon delivered by a man speaking in tongues, i.e. gibbberish, but that's not going to appeal to everyone - and not everyone gets gang-raped at raves. In fact, hardly anyone does as far as I'm aware.
After an hour of getting to know the cast and crew, we finally see what we've been waiting for: Hell House opening night. It's run like a military operation, with the directors sitting before a bank of monitors as the customers are brought in. The scenes they get to witness include a drunk driver's car crash, an AIDS victim cursing God, the teenage daughter pretending to die of a botched abortion (but accepting Christ at the last moment), and a host of suicides. The crowd are all aghast, and there's the heavily promoted option for a prayer meeting afterwards to repent (or be damned if they don't), but not all the customers are satisfied.
Some are offended by the conviction that if you don't agree with the church, you're headed straight for damnation, and you can't help but think that bullying scare tactics aren't the best way to get non-believers to change their ways. Their hearts may be in the right place, but if they made a better effort to understand the problems they depict, then they might have come up with something more constructive. The film ends with the Christians averring that we are living in the End Times, and Armageddon is just around the corner. Then we are told that Hell Houses are springing up across the world, following the Trinity Church's example. In a world where religion is growing in power, I'd rather see something more educational myself, but as I say, the film leaves you to make up your own mind. Music by Bubba Kadane and Matthew Kadane.