INTERVIEW: Scare Tactics in the Bible Belt; George Ratliff's "Hell House"
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE: 11.16.02) -- "Hell House" doesn't have a Jason or a Hannibal, but it's just as horrific.
Director George Ratliff, who proved he has a yen for American eccentrics with his 1995 superb documentary "Plutonium Circus," now takes his cameras to Dallas, where local church Trinity Assembly is staging "Hell House X: The Walking Dead." Imagine a garish religious scare fair designed by Jesse Helms, and you've got it.
The idea behind Hell House was to create a religious-right fun house designed to convert sinning teenagers into Christ-followers. The proven method involves kids walking through an exhibit where gangly post-pubescent actors portray a young girl massively bleeding from an abortion, a gay youth dying from AIDS, a girl getting drugged and raped at a rave, and so forth. In the penultimate scene, the majority of these sinners are denied entry to Heaven. Yes, God has the last laugh.
The true finale occurs when kids have passed through all the live exhibits and are then preached at and ushered into a praying area. The audience watches the innocent faces of these kids being bantered at and you know that within a decade, they'll be first-class haters for God.
To Ratliff's credit, he really doesn't ridicule these churchgoers. In fact, the Trinity Assembly might use "Hell House" as a promotional tool; it's that objective. Ratliff's cameras were just turned on, and the astoundingly banal, yet dismaying, carryings-on were captured without additional editorializing spliced on. None is needed. indieWIRE contributor Brandon Judell spoke with Ratliff about the film, which is currently screening at New York's Cinema Village.
indieWIRE: So, where was the first screening of "Hell House"?
George Ratliff: The debut was to be at the Toronto Film Festival on September 11, 2001. And we were very, very excited. It really looked great, and then of course it was canceled. Everything went haywire after that. But the first time we actually ever screened it was in New York at the Cantor Film Center. It was sort of a friends-of-family screening; there were huge laughs, and everyone really, really liked it. With a lot of audiences that we have shown it to since, there were also big laughs throughout.
Then I took it to Dallas, and I was really nervous. There were three projectors. They had 400 people there. There was a whole cafeteria full of people who were in the movie. I was scared to death but they laughed more than the New York audience, but in completely different spots. It was a really odd screening.
You know, one of the ways I got in to Trinity Church to make this movie is that I promised the church members I would sit down and watch it with them when it was completed so they could do with me what they will.
iW: Now that Trinity Church has seen your film, will they be selling it over the Internet to push their cause?
Ratliff: Yeah. We haven't given them a copy yet, but they will as soon as they can. I'm sure of it. When we had the screening at the church, I found out that they were trying to sell tickets. (Laughs) The whole thing was that I was going to show it to them, and they advertised and were going to sell tickets. I called them and I said, "Listen. You can't sell tickets to this thing. This is our gift to you that we're showing to you. You can't make money from it." They said, "OK, OK." So we went down there, and they were selling concessions. (Laughs) Hot dogs and everything. The bottom line is that they had to make a certain amount of money every month. Yes, they will definitely try to sell this.
iW: Since it's obvious that your views are diametrically opposed to the folks running "Hell House," are you upset that they can use your film as a promotional device and recruiting tool?
Ratliff: No, I'm not. In fact, I wouldn't mind it at all if it got out there. First of all, I grew up in Amarillo, which is very conservative. And I was smart enough that when I saw a route out, I took it. I think that if I had seen this movie when I was 15 or 16, I would realize how ridiculous these people look and what their beliefs are. They look at it and see themselves and think it's great, and they'll show it.
I think "Hell House" might be the only way to get to these groups of kids who are isolated in these domes of belief. The Church doesn't let these kids see anything. They don't let them go to the movies. They don't let them go to the wrong web sites. They don't let them go anywhere. They won't see anything, and they try to marry them off at a very young age. That's sort of one of the Church's goals. They want to get them married to each other to keep them in. I see [my film] as a possible life raft. I really doubt that it will convert people to the Trinity cause.
iW: Is there a lot of footage that we didn't get to see that will make it to the DVD?
Ratliff: Yeah, actually we cut my favorite scene from the movie; it was my favorite white background scene. [Editor's Note: Numerous members of the Church were interviewed one-on-one against a white background.] The members were telling us their experiences when they saw demons.
It was just great stuff but for the longest time, I firmly believed that [audiences] would not sit still and watch 30 continuous minutes of the Hell House carryings-on. With documentaries about shows, they do all this build-up to the show. Then, when the show happens, it's just boring. "Moon Over Broadway." Or the fake ones like "Waiting for Guffman" or "Best In Show." I think those movies are great but when they get to the show, they kind of fall apart because you're just watching the show for 30 minutes. It just doesn't work.
So I thought we had to break our footage up. We'd do part of the show and then we'd come back, and we'd break those scenes up with these white background interviews. We wound up losing many of those and just combining scenes from the show. And the show does sustain. I was wrong. It was one of those things where we had to lose something great to make the movie work.