Will Allen spent 22 years making his first feature, but he didn’t have any idea he was working on it until it was nearly in the can. A failed film student who was indoctrinated into a bizarre cult and served as its de facto cameraman for the two decades that followed, Allen emerged from the grip of his sociopathic guru with enough washed-out digital footage of pseudo-spiritual groupthink to cut together a shot-for-shot documentary remake of “The Master.” What he ultimately made from it is far less interesting.
In some respects, “Holy Hell” is unlike any other movie ever made. Its access, its span, and the sheer eccentricity of its chief subject seem to place it in the rarefied territory of inimitable one-offs like “Grey Gardens” or “Titicut Follies.” And yet, the extremely conventional means by which Allen and his collaborators have distilled this footage into a coherent 100-minute narrative underscores the strange contradiction at the heart of this seemingly singular film: Every cult is different, but every cult is the same. Allen’s story is so wild that you can’t believe it actually happened. So why does it feel so familiar?
Will Allen circa 1985 was pretty much the ideal target for a cult. A flower child who was born a generation too late, Allen came of age during the rise of the yuppies, and was forced to retreat to the far margins of society in order to find likeminded people. Iced out of his family environment by a homophobic mother and left adrift after graduating from film school with no promise of a showbiz career, he’s the kind of guy who believes that there simply has to be a higher purpose for his life. Narrating the home video footage that opens the film, Allen blankly intones things like “I’ve always wanted to know why I’m here” and “I went to my great-grandmother’s open casket when I was four, and became fascinated by the concept of life and death.”
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The Buddhafield was full of them. Allen never says how he was first invited to live on a new age commune somewhere on the outskirts of California, but it’s immediately clear why the place appealed to him. Founded on basic principles of clean living, paid work, and hours of voluntary pro bono service for fellow devotees (and local quadriplegics), this unthreatening idyll was designed to seduce the dreamy and dispossessed. As one of the film’s talking heads remembers thinking at the time: “If this was a cult, at least it was a really good cult.”
But all of this positive energy has to orbit around something, or someone, and this particular cult of personality centers on a vaguely foreign spiritual guru who evinces all the sincerity of a monorail salesman. Named Michel, but more frequently referred to as “the teacher,” this guy doesn’t look like the gatekeeper to enlightenment so much as he does the steroidal lovechild of Bronson Pinchot and Joan Rivers. Hairless, rippled, and often seen wearing nothing besides a spandex speedo and a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses, Michel radiates positive energy as he leads his blissed out flock through guided meditations or bastardized Hindu rituals. “Wherever you are is where happiness is,” he tells them, the thinly disguised subtext being that his followers won’t find happiness anywhere else. It isn’t long before the ranks of Buddhafield members begin to swell as noticeably as the bulge in Michel’s bathing suit.
Spoiler alert: It turns out that this mysterious figure — a failed actor whose claim to fame was as an extra in the Satanic baptism at the end of “Rosemary’s Baby” — may not actually be God’s emissary on Earth.
Things quickly spiral south as Michel begins to assert his power. His followers heed his every beck and call: They massage him, they carry a lawn chair for him everywhere he goes, and they even agree to perform his increasingly ornate ballets (which look quite impressive, to be honest). In a crucial gesture, Michel disenfranchises his flock from their former identities, insisting that they each adopt new names (Allen becomes “Francesco”). As the tragic farce continues, the guru’s ideology begins to contradict itself: His teachings insist that the body is nothing but a disposable vessel, while his constant primping and preening — and his bald distaste for fat people — reveal the vanity of a megalomaniac (dive-bombing into self-parody, the man even keeps a few violent peacocks in his personal petting zoo).
Much of “Holy Hell” is spent gawking at all the weirdness, as though Allen is recognizing in real-time just how insane his life used to be. On the other hand, the evil of Michel’s operation — naturally percolating beneath the surface from the start — doesn’t bubble up until the end, at which point it’s given precious little screen time. It’s an understandable imbalance (Allen always stopped shooting whenever Michel began to lose his cool, and so there’s hardly any footage to help illustrate how Buddhafield imploded), but one that guts the film of its most damning particulars.
Deprived of any meaningful answers, Allen continually returns to the same open-ended question: How did this happen? How were 100 reasonably intelligent adults convinced to get naked for a “mystical” man from afar just because he said things like “”If you can’t stand naked in front of your master, you can’t stand naked in front of your god”?
Well, how does any cult happen? Power is power, and it always works the same way. The tools may change, but the process of twisting vulnerabilities into blind devotion is always the same. A figures tells his disciples that they are not simple creatures, and then he heels them into being his dogs. There’s no doubt that this was a soul-scorching experience for those who survived it, but on screen it plays like cults-by-numbers (an impression that’s cemented by the film’s linear progression and chintzy score).
There’s an undeniable anthropological value to Allen’s footage — imagine if one of David Koresh’s most-trusted disciples had recorded every second of his time in the Heaven’s Gate — but his film is far more compelling as an artifact than it is as a narrative. Allen begins the film by describing this journey as a “22-year search for truth,” and while there’s no doubt that he found more than he bargained for, “Holy Hell” fails to convey what that might be.
“Holy Hell” opens in theaters on Friday.
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