I was expecting the same type of foamy fundy type behavior that was so prevalent in Jesus Camp, but the group in Hell House came across as much more sane and sedate. There was some of the 'speaking in tongues' stuff but I didn't see anyone twitching on the floor (thank goodness), and in their interviews the kids and the adults both came across as thoughtful, bright and passionate without being so over-the-top.
I was particularly impressed by a father we meet about ten minutes into the film. His daughter is trying out for the Hell House abortion scene and we see her and her three other siblings getting ready for school. You immediately sense something is different about this family because instead of mom cooking breakfast and hurrying the children along, their father is doing it. Turns out he and his wife split up because she was seeing someone she met on the internet and he not only has custody of his children, he is raising them by himself. One of the children has epilepsy and goes into a seizure at the table, and this father carries him to a comfortable room and talks (also prays) the little guy out of it while they wait for the ambulance to arrive. It's a very powerful and emotional scene, and this man is so gentle and loving with his children it just really pulls at your heart. Later on the father decides to try out for a scene himself and he and his daughter both end up with good roles.
I've been very outspokenly against the whole concept of spiritually terrorizing kids at Halloween, and I still don't agree with terrifying children for the sake of proselytizing but I have to admit there's a lot of good intentions behind it. I don't think there's a drop of malice or evil intent in these people whatsoever, but I do question the wisdom of allowing children to see some of the scenes because they are so incredibly graphic. People dying of AIDS in a hospital room, a horrific car wreck, a girl laid out on a hospital bed bleeding to death after a botched abortion. It was so realistic and frightening there's no way I'd ever let my little ones see it.
The two scenes that got to me the most were the hospital scenes involving the AIDS patient and the post-abortion girl. It gives the wrong impression; that it's mainly gay people who get AIDS and it's their own fault. The setting and other aspects of the scene are quite realistically rendered, however, and I can see why people would be terrified by it.
The botched abortion scene is even more graphic. A teen girl is wheeled in on a gurney, her crotch, legs and the bedding under her literally soaked in blood. The set people really know their stuff; it looked frighteningly real. And wet. The artificial blood was pooling under her. Very graphic. The site of it is shocking and intense. The worst part of it that while this girl is lying there crying and screaming in pain there's a rubber-masked, black-robed demon standing behind the bed yelling at her that she's a murderer and she deserves to suffer for killing her baby. I wasn't even there and it got to me, I can only imagine how horrifying this would be to an elementary or middle-school aged child. Scary to some adults, even.
Oddly, no one complained save for a small group of kids who were so upset by the scene involving the gay kid in the hospital they confronted one of the adults. One of them was swearing and flipping the bird while yelling at the man about bigotry. I understood the upset but it could have been handled a bit more diplomatically. That better than any other part of the film showed the emotional and psychological impact the production has on people.
Still, I couldn't help but giggle at their 'occult props', one of which was a black board with what they no doubt thought was a pentagram, which was actually a red star of david painted inside a circle. There was an underlying sense of camp to the Hell House, and I could easily imagine my son and I and I going in and being impressed by the more realistic things, then watching the occult scenes and just laughing our butts off. I mean, arms around each other's shoulders for support, leaning, tears of mirth streaming down our faces, breathless laughter. You get these awful images of bloody bodies, hospitals and tormented people followed by the most poorly informed and campily-staged scenes of satanism and/or witchcraft imaginable. Hilarious!!
I found that while watching the film I experienced a strange mix of emotions ranging from hilarity to horror. It's definitely an objective look at something a lot of us are not involved in and it leaves you emotionally drained, to be sure, but you don't (at least I didn't) get the sense that these people are wackos like the 'Jesus Camp' group. They're sincere and very, very serious about what they're doing. Their passion is inspiring, even if they aren't exactly well-informed. I also liked the noticeable absence of input from the director. He didn't narrate, he didn't make an appearance, he didn't do anything but film what was being done and put up a camera for the individual church members to record their video diaries. The editing was sparse but tight and you get a sense of who these people are without the intrusion of a lot of special effects or negative commentary. I like this approach; it says, 'this is the way things are, take it or leave it'.
Overall it's an excellent documentary, and a fascinating look into a belief system some of us haven't been exposed to, and others among us (like myself) are glad to have left behind. I'm looking forward to watching it again.