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Plexifilm presents
Hell House (2001)

"We are in competition for lost souls. And we're gonna win. We are in this to win."
- Tim Ferguson

Review By: Joel Cunningham  
Published: May 25, 2003

Director: George Ratliff

Manufacturer: HSV
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (intense recreations of violent acts, some language)
Run Time: 01h:25m:31s
Release Date: May 27, 2003
UPC: 082354001025
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- AB-B- B+

DVD Review

Around October, the kids in the youth group at Trinity Assembly Church of God in Texas have a decision to make. Are they going to dress up as victims of a car crash? Demonic tempters? Murderers? Tortured souls burning in hell? They aren't choosing their Halloween costumes, though—they are auditioning for roles in Trinity Church's annual Hell House, the spiritual equivalent of a prison's Scared Straight program.

Each October since 1990, Trinity Church has constructed an elaborate house of horrors that features, instead of ghouls and goblins, realistic recreations of sinful acts. Groups are led by their demonic tour guide, a "Death Monitor" who taunts the audience and the actors. A typical scene features a sobbing, histrionic girl in a crude recreation of a hospital room. Her crotch is bathed in a gallon of fake blood, and she sobs that she thought taking the abortion drug RU-486 was just a simple thing. No, the Death Monitor taunts, she murdered her baby, and now she is going to die and go to hell. Next to her, a gay teen "dies" of AIDS and is goaded into cursing God by a demon. "He thought his homosexual lifestyle was everything a real man could want," says the demon. "But now he's dying of AIDS. Ha ha ha!"

The theory is, of course, that attendees (roughly 12,00 a year, claims the church, each paying $7 a pop to enter) will see the horrors of a life away from God, and see the consequences (the tortured souls dragged off to hell) and be scared enough to commit their lives to Jesus. Tim Ferguson, who leads the youth group, admits outright that pulpit pounding and fire and brimstone tactics are a part of their ministry. "I wish you didn't have to see the things you're going to see," he says, but such is the way of the secular world.

Director George Ratliff follows the planning, casting, construction, and execution of Hell House X. We see church members deciding what scenarios will be used this year (they gained national attention in 1999 with a recreation of the Columbine massacre, and at Hell House XII in 2002, the 9-11 attacks were a featured topic), and casting the roles on the basis of acting talent and "spiritual faith." The kids are enthusiastic, to say the least. They seem to relish playing a role like "suicide girl," who gets to dance at a rave, take drugs, get raped, reveal that she was molested by her father, and commit suicide five times a night for an entire month.

We also get a chance to see how Hell House fits into the Trinity mission. Church leaders preach about their obligation to save the secular world, and say that if they do nothing to convince others of the error of their ways, the "blood is on [their] heads as well as yours for your sins." Ratliff seems to have been given unlimited access to church services and meetings, and captured onscreen are frenetic prayer services featuring wailing, anointing with oils, the laying on of hands, and impromptu speaking in tongues. Ratliff could easily inject some commentary here to make it seem like these people are a bunch of kooks, but he leaves it up to the audience to decide. After all, faith is the most personal decision a person can make. Who is to say that such fervor is disingenuous?

Ratliff uses Hell House as an in, but the film is really about the church's ministry. The staged scenes are a bit extreme, but the church sees them as a means to an end. In one of the best, a group of irate teens shouts at the Hell House organizers, accusing them of bigotry and stereotyping of homosexuals as "evil." The participant's only response is, "What did you think you were going to see here?" At the end of the Hell House tour, attendees are lined up against the wall and told that they have a decision to make—they can walk through a door to pray with a waiting group of spiritual counselors, or they can just walk away, and "take a risk with their souls." Some do go to pray, the others guiltily look at their shoes, unable to meet the accusing gaze of the speaker. Is such alienating ministry worthwhile? Can scare tactics lead to an enduring faith? That's between you and God.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Hell House was obviously a fairly low-budget production, and the source materials show their limitations on DVD. There is a lot of grain and some print damage, and fine detail and black level are only fair. Shadow detail is lacking, and some of the darker scenes look muddled, with faces floating in a sea of black. It's a watchable presentation, but certainly not very pretty to look at.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: This is a fine, basic stereo presentation. Dialogue is crisp and well recorded. The music comes across well enough, filling out the front soundstage a bit. Some of the screams during the Hell scenes sound a little shrill, but the overall presentation is adequate.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Deleted Scenes
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. 1999 documentary short, The Devil Made Me Do It
  2. "This American Life" radio program about Hell House, hosted by Ira Glass
  3. Trinity Church's "Acadamy Awards" Ceremony
Extras Review: While the extras are by no means extensive, Plexifilm has included a number of unique supplements that are far more worthwhile than most bonus material on DVDs these days. Though director George Ratliff does not provide commentary for the feature, he does get a chance to explain himself in a brief essay included in the insert.

There is one deleted scene, a nicely edited 90-second segment of Trinity youth group members talking about the presence of demons in their lives. Another segment that could be considered a deleted scene of sorts is the bizarre "Academy Awards" ceremony held for the Hell House performers at the end of every season. Awards (they look like a familiar little gold man) are given out for things like "Best Suicide." We get to see a snippet of the acceptance speech from the girl who won "Best Rape Victim." She begins by saying, "I couldn't have done it without my rapers, so thanks to Josh and Brian..." and continues, commenting that she enjoyed the experience because she "got to meet a lot of new people [she] didn't know before."

I first heard about Hell House on the syndicated NPR program "This American Life," hosted by Chicagoan Ira Glass, and that 15-minute segment is included here. Though most of the audio is taken from the documentary proper, George Ratliff does provide some interesting narration.

The final extra is the 1999 short film, The Devil Made Me Do It, which Ratliff used to secure funding for the feature-length documentary. It features footage from Hell House IX, so we get to see a few different scenes, and there are some interesting interviews that would've fit well into the completed film.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Hell House is an excellent documentary in the vérité style. Director George Ratliff is extremely careful about injecting editorial into his film, and this account of an evangelical church so eager to recruit that it would scare people into salvation with a reenactment of the Columbine massacre never feels like a freak show. Criticizing someone for his or her religious beliefs and practices is the quickest way to start an argument; Ratliff's film will instead inspire debate. Plexifilm has produced a nice disc for this festival favorite, and their efforts are much appreciated.


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