I just watched Hell House, a documentary about a Pentecostal church in suburban Dallas that puts on a haunted house at Halloween every year. Instead of spooking its customers with ordinary ghosts and goblins, it wants to scare them into becoming a Christian by graphically, shockingly recreating horrific (and horrifically acted) scenes of suicide, rape, drug abuse, death from AIDS, and Columbine-like massacres.

I don't think I've ever been so affected by a documentary since Capturing The Friedmans. This one made me even angrier, but it's also a better film. Director George Ratliff has nearly pulled off a miracle. Instead of targeting the Trinity Assembly of God as ridiculous, cartoonish zealots, he presents a completely even-handed account, from auditions and scene construction to the ghoulish finished product, not to mention an unforgettable sequence that examines the frankly frightening phenomenon of speaking in tongues.

Ultimately, your reaction to the film is going to stem from what you bring to it via your own beliefs. I'm sure I'm not the first person to find these people exceptionally disturbing for who they are and what they're trying to accomplish. Although it should be obvious that the Hell House is a recruiting effort for conversion to the church, that's not explicity revealed to us and the Hell House customers until the very end of the tour. Personally, I find that despicable, but I can imagine that any member of that church who watches the film will find nothing at all wrong with how they're portrayed.

There's one key scene that comments negatively on the church. Instead of coming from the director, it's simply the disgusted reaction of a few teens who have gone through the Hell House. They argue with one of the church leaders and manage to point out exactly what's wrong and unfair about it. It's cathartic but it acknowledges the crucial flaws of the Hell House that members of the church either ignore, fail to see, or do not understand. And although I feel profoundly unsettled and incensed at what this church is doing, the film is so damn fair towards its subjects, that I don't hate them or even feel superior to them in any way. It's presented as just another way of life, like Hinduism or Judaism or Atheism. Thank god there exists this record of it, so I don't ever have to experience it first hand.

Two more movies...

Party Monster
: Seth Green rocks, but just about everything else in this biopic of club kid Michael Alig is wrong, wrong, wrong, especially a cast-against type Macaulay Culkin. What can you say about a witless movie that wastes Natasha Lyonne, Chloe Sevingy and Wilson Cruz?

Camp: The most splendid movie musical numbers since Hedwig, and that Daniel Letterle sure is purty. But he can't act, and much of the cast ain't much better. But despite this and a tired teen pansexual romance angle, this is the scrapy little movie that could and did put a smile on my face.