Hell House

Every fall, in a suburb of Dallas, Bible-thumping, God-fearing teens and adults devote an enormous amount of time and energy to graphic re-creations of abortion, gang rape, school shootings, and other sordid phenomena. The cause is a unique Halloween attraction called Hell House, which attempts to use the most Satanic of holidays to scare heathens into turning over their lives to Christ. The moral equivalent of Scared Straight, the haunted house combines sensationalism and sanctimony in a way destined to turn the stomachs of non-believers, the ostensible target of the house's gruesome morality plays. The documentary Hell House takes an unnerving look at one Hell House season, following it from casting sessions and script rewrites on through to its climactic performances, which make the amateur theatrics of Waiting For Guffman look polished and restrained by comparison. Unencumbered by even the faintest notion of good taste or moral ambiguity, the proprietors of Hell House stage their vignettes in a way that suggests Jack Chick tracts brought to life by the Ned Flanders Players. As sordid and simplistic as pornography, the house's cautionary tales depict a black-and-white moral universe where sobbing sinners with bleeding crotches are taunted by cackling demons, and even the slightest detour from the Lord's path leads directly into the bowels of hell. Director George Ratliff fully exploits the subject matter's enormous potential for dark humor, deriving huge laughs from clean-cut church kids sparring good-naturedly over which scene is "funnest" to be in, the rave/rape scene or the school shooting. An extended ballet of repression and sublimation, Hell House is smartly attuned to the way the Hell House vignettes represent a burlesque of adolescent temptations filtered through the unforgiving lens of absolute morality. Consequently, the most poignant and unnerving moments occur when the house's moralistic freak-show overlaps with the messier lives of the people who staff it. Sordidly hilarious, Hell House provides an unforgettable look at a fascinating slice of American life.

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