Screened as part of NZIFF 2002
"Each Halloween for the past ten years, the Trinity Christian School in Cedar Hill, Texas, has presented Hell House. With its dungeons and demons, fake blood and liquid smoke, Trinity’s haunted house seems like a typical teen scream. Except at this one, the road to eternal damnation is paved with drugs, AIDS, suicide, abortion – that sort of thing. ‘It’s a reality check,’ says one organizer.
The message is old school, Fire’n’Brimstone 101: If you don’t accept Christ, you pay the consequences. But the method is an in-your-face sermon on Mount MTV aimed squarely at the ADD souls of today’s shell-shocked teens. Taking the lead from Trinity, Hell Houses have become popular scare-fare for church groups throughout the world. There’s even a 270-page manual complete with scripts covering such hot-button topics as family violence and school shootings. It was Trinity’s graphic Columbine scene that brought national attention to its controversial Hell House in 1999, not to mention annual admissions of 15,000.
This moody, stylish verité doc deftly follows Trinity’s impressively mounted drama from script development (some out-of-the-box thinking on drunk driving), a competitive casting call (‘You are in hell, and it’s burning...’) through to opening night jitters. Yes, there is much humour here. It is a high school production, after all. How was the scene painter to know that ‘there’s no white in any cult situation’? Ratliff, however, smartly resists the ripest gags to present a rather non-judgmental depiction of the arduous endeavour. Teen ennui and the perceived proximity of ‘the end times’ make a surprisingly good fit; a subplot following a stage dad, a single father of four whose wife leaves to pursue an Internet romance, reverberates with sensitivity, even pathos, in contrast to the hyperbolic drama of Hell House…" — Sean Farnel, Toronto International Film Festival
"A Jack Chick tract come to life, Hell House is loaded with thudding ironies: a teen girl says ‘not having sex was drilled into me,’ and all the Christian thespians – especially the ‘rave DJ’ – zealously enact the transgressions they’re condemning… Hell House is grimly comic and Southern Gothic." — Johnny Ray Huston, San Francisco Bay Guardian