For all the shrieks, howls and blood-letting that assault the sensibilities of its captive audiences, this quickie tour of Hell and its earthly antechambers isn’t frightening enough to win converts to the evangelical Christian faith of the minister who devised the official playbook for its presentation. Nor is this “Hell House” funny, in the ironic fashion one might expect from the avant-garde creatives of Les Freres Corbusier. To their obvious discomfort, helmer Alex Timbers and the company seem to be caught in some performance hell of their own devising, trying to dramatize the nightmares of people whose moral convictions they don’t pretend to understand.
Coming from a company that scored its biggest hit by having children recite the philosophical ravings of Scientologist L. Ron Hubbard, the notion of making a Halloween project of that evangelical morality play known as a “hell house” seems like a brilliant flash of inspiration. For a mere $300, Les Freres bought the rights to the work, written by the Rev. Keenan Roberts and used as a teaching tool by hundreds of evangelical churches throughout the country.
Instead of suiting up as ghosts and zombies and conducting conventional haunted-house tours, these church groups learn (from detailed instructional kits) how to construct an environment that is truly terrifying — the real and supposedly godless world we live in.
To its credit, Les Freres tries to play fair with the outlandish material. Herding the participants into small groups that enter the jaws of hell at regular intervals, a portly, chuckling demon in a black cloak and dripping red face paint (terrible makeup job) takes them through a maze of rooms in which gruesome scenes of diabolical cruelty are enacted and much stage blood (the recipe for which is included in the kit) is spilled.
A college girl, raped at a rave, commits suicide. A cheerleader shrieks with pain during an abortion. A teen whose mind has been warped by heavy-metal music mows down his fellow high school students. A young man who married his partner in a gay wedding dies horribly of AIDS. A Terry Schiavo-esque character screams in vain for the feeding tube that evil doctors have ripped away from her.
The special effects are a treat, what with hunks of raw meat being thrown around the operating room where the abortion is staged and gooey red noodles hitting the back wall whenever someone’s brains are blown out. But a simple reality check indicates that, while Les Freres is not mocking the real fears of impressionable young Christians, neither is the company taking them very seriously.
Guts and gore aside, neither the resident demons nor their innocent victims convey much conviction as they race through these frantically paced scenes. Only Jeff Biehl, rolling his penetrating eyes over the huddled spectators and speaking in low and measured tones as Lucifer, manages to muster up some sense of genuine evil behind all the shenanigans.
In its efforts to be faithful to these grotesque visions of a godless world, Les Freres has swallowed the bait of the god-awful text and tried to play the drama of each overwrought scene — instead of developing characters for the gullible believers who are putting on this hell house, convinced they’re doing God’s work. At this point, it’s too late for honesty, but maybe by next Halloween .…