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"HELL HOUSE"

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Plexifilm
Evangelical Christianity continues to exert an inestimably important influence on a large percentage of the world population. To the largely secular world of modern art and media, academia and philosophy, Christianity became a functional nonentity the day Nietzsche declared the death of God. However, millions of people, many in prominent positions of power and influence, continue to confound adversity with their faith in and insistence on the importance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. A recent film that I don't need to mention by name has once again placed the issue of faith versus secularism at the forefront of international dialogue. There is a tendency among the majority of postmodernist thinkers, one which I seem unable to shake, of regarding the New Testament and the evolution of faith in Christ with a clinical distance, something to consider with suspicion and detachment. Having grown up in a strictly atheist family of intellectuals, and from a very young age having become interested in a variety of divergent religious and transgressive occult beliefs, I have had my brain blown open and wiped clean of the possibility of investing fully in the kind of senseless wide-eyed faith, piety and exclusivity demanded by the born-again movement. However, whether reading the profoundly inspiring works of Kierkegaard or Pascal, or hearing the revenant gospel of Blind Willie Johnson or the Gnostic poetry cycles of Current 93, I cannot help but feel a strange gravitational pull towards the faith of Paul, and George Ratliff's documentary Hell House is a perfect encapsulation of the enticing beauty of modern Christianity. Ratliff trains his camera on Trinity Church, a large Midwestern Pentacostal community that has devised a unique method of convincing new members to join the faith. Each year at Halloween, they erect an enormous haunted house, a series of rooms through which visitors are ushered, each room vividly exhibiting a different temptation of the modern world and its disastrous effect on the spiritual life of its victims. Truly frightening one-act plays about such taboo subjects as abortion, homosexuality, family violence, drug addiction and occultism are enacted by a spirited group of young born-agains. A variety of high-tech audio effects, pyrotechnics and even live gunfire are utilized to make each vignette as confrontational and frightening as possible, culminating in a nightmarish vision of hell complete with the souls of the eternally damned writhing in plexiglass cages, screaming penances on the deaf ears of grinning devils. At the end of each Hell House tour, the audience members are given the chance to redeem themselves and become born-again, signing promissory contracts and praying to have their sins absolved in the blood of Christ. The Hell House attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year, and a staggeringly large percentage of the visitors are convinced to take the vow of faith. The passion and work ethic applied to the planning and implementation of the Hell House is the chief subject of the film, and it provides fascinating insight. Ratliff's non-judgmental lens is startlingly objective in its view of middle-American Christians young and old, providing a view of modern religious faith that avoids the "Jesus Freak" cliches I'd become accustomed to. There are dozens of haunting scenes that have etched themselves into my memory, chief among them a sequence showing a typical church gathering, where the Pentacostals speak to God in their "love language" — a string of nonsensical tongues and glossolalia that serves to transcend reason and appeal directly to the spirit. An appropriately ghostly musical score is provided by Matt and Bubba Kadane. Hell House is beautifully and respectfully rendered portrait of a silent majority; the triumphs of modern Christianity have never been so vividly depicted.
Last Updated on Monday, 29 August 2005 12:21  


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