Hell House

dir. Ratliff

Opens Fri Oct 25

Clinton Street Theater

Every year around Halloween, churches across the nation put on haunted houses that are intended to put the fear of god into their guests. Rather than employing the usual scare tactics--such as zombies, and spiders--they depict sin and its consequences (death, immediately followed by eternal agony).

Hell House documents the original and most elaborate of these, invented by members of a Pentecostal church in Texas. An enormous production, Hell House holds competitive auditions for its actors and uses professional equipment to make the skits extra-graphic and realistic. They include a botched abortion, homosexually acquired AIDS, and a rave/date rape. The lesson is simple: if you fuck around, you're going to hell. The house attracts enormous numbers, who are given the opportunity to accept Jesus into their hearts as the tour's finale.

One scene involves an offended clutch of Christian teenagers, upset about the Hell House's simplistic, fanatic message. "It's not fair to make things seem so black and white. There's no gray area, which is how life really is." An excellent point, and one exemplified by the approach taken by the filmmakers in the treatment of their subjects. It's too easy to manipulate the footage of Hell House's organizers and participants and vilify them as one-dimensional Bible thumpers. Instead, the document takes time to emphasize their humanity and earnest intentions, however sick the results may be.

The filmmakers also wait a respectful length of time before introducing scenes in which the subjects do what we're all waiting to see--speak in tongues. Still, you could entirely justify seeing the film just for the brief segment in which a man starts lounge-singing in tongues.

Although the film's premise suggests a raunchier freakfest than it is, it is an un-condemning divulgence of a phenomenally strange subculture.