Lest one think dyed-in-the-wool, Us-vs.-Them religious moralism is only practiced on foreign shores, "Hell House" strongly suggests otherwise. Latest docu by George Ratliff (1995's "Plutonium Circus") goes behind the scenes to chart year 10 of the nation's oldest -- but now widely imitated -- Christian Halloween thrillfest.

Lest one think dyed-in-the-wool, Us-vs.-Them religious moralism is only practiced on foreign shores, “Hell House” strongly suggests otherwise. Latest docu by George Ratliff (1995’s “Plutonium Circus”) goes behind the scenes to chart year 10 of the nation’s oldest — but now widely imitated — Christian Halloween thrillfest. Perils of abortion, homosexuality, rave culture and more are among the “horrors” illustrated in this annual live Texas spookshow. Admirably pokerfaced feature leaves viewers to draw their own conclusions about luridly pop missionary work. Prospects for specialized U.S. broadcast and niche theatrical exposure are very good; offshore, this is an incriminating slice of Americana pie one rather hopes won’t travel far.

Preparations for Dallas-based Trinity Assembly of God’s yearly “Hell House” begin far in advance. Whole temporary buildings are erected to accommodate the ever-expanding production, which is open to the public throughout October.

But that’s nothing compared to the competitive zeal with which students from Trinity Christian School — plus a few adult graduates and parents — try out for roles like “Abortion Girl” or “Satanic Tour Guide.” No wonder: These showcases for hysterical screaming, gory death scenes and teary telepic-style monologues are precisely what many tube-raised American teens fantasize acting should be all about.

Indeed, one might question just how much participants can learn from Hell House’s hyperbolic horrors, which are as technically elaborate and flashy as any rock concert. Scenarios include a gay man’s hospital bed demise (AIDS being the consequence of his lifestyle choice); a first-time rave attendee’s drugging, date rape and subsequent suicide; devil worshippers’ human sacrifice ceremony; and an abortion pill user’s fatal hemorrhage.

Paying customers (some 12,000 per year at this site alone) must pass though a lurid Hellscape where unrepentant characters are left to spend Eternity. They’re then offered — or perhaps bullied into — a pre-exit prayer session. One organizer insists all this is “not a scare tactic or guilt trip.” Just a wholesome night’s family entertainment, then?

Not the first pic on this subject (a featurette on one of the several hundred satellite Hell Houses screened at fests last year), director Ratliff’s treatment eschews easy ridicule by looking past the sensational “show” to glimpse multiethnic participants’ very ordinary, just-getting-along home/family lives. Nonetheless, “Hell House” is a slice of contempo life many viewers will find bizarre and disturbing, not necessarily in the precautionary-moral way its subjects intend. Briskly paced docu is well handled in tech departments.

Hell House

Production

A Mixed Greens presentation of a Cantina Pictures production. (International sales: Mixed Greens, New York.) Produced by Zachary Mortensen, Selina Lewis Davidson, George Ratliff. Executive producer, Paige West. Directed by George Ratliff.

Crew

Camera (color, 16mm), Jawad Metni; editor, Michael LaHaie; music, Bubba Kadane, Matthew Kadane; sound mixer, Ethan Adnrus. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real-to-Reel), Sept. 12, 2001. Running time: 85 MIN.
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