Holy Hell Will Allen
Published Jan 27, 2016There are plenty of cult-themed documentaries out there, but none quite like Holy Hell. For over 20 years, director Will Allen was the official videographer for the Buddhafield spiritual group. Having finally broken free from the organization's hypnotic spell, Allen ended up with decades of incriminating footage to use against his bizarre, corrupt and ultimately disgusting leader.
As with all successful cults, the Buddhafield is led by a charismatic weirdo. At first named Michel (which he changes to Andreas halfway through the film), he's a genuinely hilarious man on many levels. When we first meet him in the early '80s, he's got a hot bod and an intense face that resembles Putin at times. He loves to parade around in nothing but Ray-Bans and speedos, and he delivers batshit parables with a vague European accent that matches Tommy Wiseau's.
His followers, too, are obsessed with working out and eating right, so it's entirely surreal when they perform weird rituals and alternate between laughing and weeping in the forest. Dressed in hot pants and ripped with abs, they resemble a brainwashed group of extras from a Crystal Pepsi commercial.
As the film unfolds and the years creep forward, Michel becomes weirder and weirder. Spooked by the events in Waco, Texas, the leader changes his name to Andreas and uproots his group to a new location. He has them build him a small exotic animal sanctuary and an enormous ballet theatre in which they practice and rehearse elaborate, professional shows that they perform for no one.
Unravelling further, Andreas uses plastic surgery to the point where his lips look like slugs. Aside from ballet and aerobics, Andreas makes Tim and Eric-style music videos and wears increasingly outlandish outfits. He also exhibits a bizarre sense of humour throughout, flippantly joking that he's brainwashed his acolytes. Though they never thought they were in a cult, Andreas' followers still entertained the thought. "We used to joke that even if it was a cult, at least it was a good cult," one former follower says.
By the film's third act, a huge (though rather unsurprising) bombshell is dropped, and the humour is sucked out of the film as it instead focuses on the mass exodus of many of Andreas' followers. We also learn a number of sordid secrets from the leader's past, including his now-unnerving bit part in Rosemary's Baby.
Because he filmed almost everything for two decades, Allen has a treasure trove of footage from his time with the Buddhafield, and its disintegrated video look only adds to the mystique. Further, since the whole film is peppered with talking head interviews from former Buddhafield members, the darker moments are particularly moving as survivors recount their suffering.
Holy Hell concludes with a final showdown that's more frustrating than victorious, but its ending is less important than the journey that gets you there. The film offers unprecedented access to life in an absurd and abusive cult, and it'll likely have you on the edge of your seat for all 100 minutes.