Published Sep 01, 2001
Welcome to the world of Extreme Christianity. Cedar Hill, Texas is the home of Trinity Christian School, which, in lieu of the school play or more carefree or celebratory pageants, hosts Hell House, a not-much-funhouse every Halloween. But as George Ratliff's compelling documentary shows, it's not a descent into the sort of inferno described so vividly by Dante or the priest giving the catechism to Stephen Dedalus and his young classmates in "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." "Hell House" focuses more on what a particularly pitiless version of Christianity sees as the paths to Hell, and they are legion. Among the shortcuts to the depths of Hell: raves and electronic music, drinking, pre-marital sex, abortion, the occult (yes, Harry Potter turns out to be one of Satan's minions) and suicide, which also seems to be the outcome of any of the aforementioned traps laid by Satan for unwary teens. All of which are luridly and unsparingly depicted in theme rooms in Hell House, and the student body hotly contests the various roles. "I really want to be abortion girl this year," says one cheerleader, as if going out for the lead in "South Pacific." And that's the most intriguing some would say unsettling - part of "Hell House." These kids look and largely act like kids living in secular North American culture - they could be skaters, ravers, jocks or stoners, but for their mortal fear of Hell and the pop culture that could lead them there, even if they seem right at home in consumer culture and feel comfortable wearing Nike swooshes and Tommy logos. Emphasising this, Ratliff stages interviews with the residents of Cedar Hill in front of a depth-less white backdrop, looking for all the world like a Gap ad. The irony there is amusing, but the deeper, grim message of the organisers of Hell House is unmitigated: that Hell is actually right here on Earth.