Hell House (2001)

Director George Ratliff’s Hell House is a documentary that follows the parish of an Assembly of God church just outside of Austin, Texas, as it prepares for its 10th annual haunted house.

But the show they put on is not your average haunted house with Leatherface lookalikes and heads of cauliflower subbing for brains — the “Hell House” seeks to scare guests into fearing the Lord by depicting sinners at their worst: an AIDS patient rejecting Christ as he withers away on his deathbed; a girl about to commit suicide and blaming God after being roofied and raped at a rave; and a picked-upon student taking revenge on his classmates by killing them, as Satan has instructed.

In all cases, they are shown heading toward eternal damnation. The goal of the attraction is to have as many as of its tens of thousands of visitors converted to Christianity by the time they enter the final room.

At turns hilarious and sad, entertaining and disturbing, Hell House is a terrific, fly-on-the-wall look at this regional phenomenon, yet takes neither side. The characters may come off as sympathetic or zealots — that depends upon your own interpretation of their behavior. My favorite shot notes a pentagram the event volunteers have painted for a devil-worship scene, but mistakenly (?) made the Star of David instead. —Rod Lott

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