Thursday, October 17, 2013

FI: Hell House

Hell House
US, 2001
Directed by George Ratliff

The strangest thing about Hell House, a documentary about a Texas church's annual Halloween tradition of creating a haunted house/come-to-Jesus morality play, is a neutrality of tone that turns the film into a sort of cinematic Rorschach test. If you come into the picture ready to condemn the fundamentalism of a sideshow that stigmatizes rape victims, role playing games, and homosexuality in archly patronizing, violent, bloody ways, then you'll find plenty of ammunition. Director George Ratliff doesn't shy away from depicting the cognitive dissonance of the clash between the Hell House's conservative morality and the shocking lack of taste of the over-the-top horrors enacted there. If you're more interested in feeling bad for, or horrified by, those indoctrinated into a worldview blinded by fear, guilt, and religious over-sensitivity, Ratliff captures that, too. Or if, by chance, you appreciate the participants' personal stories of faith and redemption, or even if you agree with the church's perspective and methods, odds are you won't come away upset by Ratliff's take. Everyone takes away what they bring in.

Whether or not that's the best way to handle the material is another question. For me, this detachment is what makes Hell House stand out above something with a more argumentative tone like Religulous. Rather than hectoring or bullying his subjects, Ratliff gives them the time and space to explain their viewpoints—or, if you prefer, enough rope with which to hang themselves. Even as his camera roves around, a fly on the wall for planning meetings, family moments, church services, speaking in tongues, and (of course) the various scenes in the Hell House itself, Ratliff rarely (if ever) comments directly. These sequences are punctuated by talking heads and strange to-camera interviews (set in a bright white room), where Ratliff appears to allow his subjects to talk without questioning or pushing. This all combines to let us, rather than the film, be the judge. Even now, I'm not sure of Ratliff's opinion of the events he filmed. I suspect a certain amount of ironic befuddlement, but that's just an educated guess; he certainly never condescends to the people on screen.

So if, as I said, the audience brings its own baggage to their interpretations of Hell House's neutrality, what does that mean with regard to whether or not they will like it? Well, I guess that also depends on what viewers want from the film. People expecting an argument or a take-down might be disappointed, as would anyone expecting hagiography. But for audiences in the middle, there's more than enough calmly-observed detail to let you come away satisfied. One unfortunate side effect of this is a certain lack of heft, which might lead to the film being tossed aside or forgotten. This wasn't an issue for me, personally, as I found myself too depressed and chilled by the film's calm observation of the madness that is, to some, a normal way of life, for me to let it go.

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