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10 Years
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Previously on Five-O
Issue Two
Swingtime Strippers
Issue One
New World Evel

George Ratliff:
Hell House is a high-tech fire and brimstone sermon. This is a church that puts on their own haunted house every Halloween. They've been doing it since 1990 and now they draw something like 13,000 annual visitors. But instead of ghouls and goblins they have what they consider "contemporary sin."

It's the Trinity Assembly of God in North Texas near Dallas. Assembly of God is basically a branch of the Pentecostal Church. The Pentecostal is only a hundred year-old church. It started in Los Angeles in 1908. Basically they're known for speaking in tongues. It comes from 2nd Corinthians, where during Pentecost the apostles are sitting around and they're filled with the spirit and they start speaking in tongues. Apparently they started speaking in tongues in Los Angles and that's when they started the Pentecostal Church and they went out thinking the Second Coming was coming any minute now and they've been doing that ever since, but of course it hasn't happened. But that's where it started.

And the guy who started it in Los Angeles was black, African-American. Assembly of God is basically a white-washed Pentecostal Church. It started in Arkansas and they basically did their own white version of it. It's kind of an oddball church. It's not too different than a lot of America. In fact, (U.S. Attorney General) John Ashcroft is the son of an Assembly of God minister and is an Assembly of God person himself.

Anyway, Pentecostals are also known for being entertainers. They're huge entertainers. The first televangelists were Pentecostals, like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Pentecostals were the first ones who had electric guitars in the service. They're big into tapping into contemporary culture to spread their message and evangelize.

Pentecostals certainly aren't the only ones out there doing it. But they're really tuned into being on the edge and being good at putting on a show. And they're really making huge headway. It's the fastest growing Christian church in the world right now.

Five-O: How'd you locate this particular church?

George: I read about it in the New York Times. I read about it October 29th, 1999. I did a big story about the Columbine Massacre, which was featured as a scene in that year's Hell House. I made five phone calls that day. The Hell House people were being bombarded by media so they said it was fine if I came on down and shot some video. My cinematographer and I flew there the next morning. We shot on the 30th and Halloween and the day after, which was Sunday. So we got to church and we did a lot of interviews. The TV people, they went, they shot the Columbine scene for two minutes and they left, because they had their 30-second blast of footage. I was more interested in the theology that thought this was a good idea. I was working for a TV show at the time and I thought it would be a good seven-minute piece. So I cut the video together — and it didn't work out as a TV piece, but I cut it together as a 10-minute short and used that to get financing to do a full feature. That came from Mixed Greens Ð they're amazing. It's run by a woman named Paige West, who's kind of a Peggy Guggenheim-type character. They support artists and also love documentary films, which they produce and finance. So it was a dream scenario. They put up the money and let me do it the way I wanted to do it. They gave me the freedom and they were really supportive. That same 10-minute tape that Mixed Greens got and liked also went to the church, and it was the first time anyone had let them speak at all. So they were happy with it. And they agreed to let me come in for months into their lives and wherever I wanted to go and shoot the feature in 2000.

Five-O: Now are they like, this Christian filmmaker from New York is coming here to Texas to make a film about us because he agrees with us? How was that addressed? — because the folks in the film are so outspokenly concerned with everyone's qualifications spiritually.

George: I gave them my word there would be no voice-over narration and that I would sit with them and watch it with them when it was done. I certainly didn't pretend to be a Christian, which I'm not.

Five-O: Did the cast ask you about that?

George: Yeah, they asked about it and I said that my spiritual beliefs are off limits for this movie, that I and my crew would go by a documentary code of ethics, but we don't want to talk about our spiritual lives, we don't want to be saved — and they agreed. And for the most part, they were really good about that. They for whatever reason wanted me to do this. And I stayed true to my word. And you know, I could have creamed them.

Five-O: It's so good the other way, with the neutrality.

George: I think so too. I think it's a much better documentary. I think it's more true to the form. There are a lot of viewers who watch it and don't like it because they think I need to be more judgmental of them. But I think that's so stupid. For the most part, critically, people have been really positive. And we're doing really well theatrically too, so it turned out for the best. But you know, it was really tempting because — you saw the documentary, you can imagine being there for months. It was really hard not to just crush them.

Five-O: However, I gotta say, there is a lot of empathy to be had with the single father. The fact that you guys were rolling when his toddler had an epileptic seizure...

George: Unbelievable. That was one of the first days of shooting. But it's not as if we tracked down that father because his life was a mess. John's one of the guys I followed in 1999. His daughter, Alex, was in Hell House in 1999, because she went to the school. He couldn't get her into a Catholic school so she joined Trinity School and she became part of the church — she sort of converted. And her father was all distressed about it and everything because he's a Catholic. He volunteered with Hell House just to kind of watch over her and he kind of thought they were nutty. As we were going through it, I was seeing him as a character being our tour guide, as an outsider into this world. I didn't know in the year that followed that his life would enter a hell of its own. He had the split with his wife...

Five-O: Who left the family for a romance with a guy she found on the internet. John's so candid about it, it's painful.

George: Yeah. Really. The guy wears it all on his sleeve. And part of the reason I followed him in 1999 is, he's a ham for the camera. When you're making a documentary, it sounds silly, but you cast a documentary like you would a film. Because you have to have your characters. One of the things we knew we had to get was an empathetic character for the people who don't like these people at all to sit and watch them for 90 minutes.

I went to Dallas, moved there in July 2000, and spent most of July just figuring out who was who and who could work. People have to like the camera. And this worked because everyone involved with Hell House was basically a performer in their own mind anyway, so they were OK with the camera.

Five-O: What about your own background?

George: I grew up in Amarillo, Texas, which is incredibly conservative. It's like your hometown Duncanville, a little bit bigger, except there's no other city of any size in a 200-mile radius. It's very fundamentalist and conservative so I was very familiar with this culture. Although my parents weren't like that at all. But I went to public school and I was bombarded by it every step of the way. I went to University of Texas, graduated in 1992 with an English degree and a film degree in 1993.

I made a feature documentary called "Plutonium Circus" in Texas and then I moved to New York and worked for a TV show, "Split Screen," here before doing "Hell House." "Plutonium Circus" you can get on Amazon or rent it at the crazier video stores. It's about — do you know Errol Morris's work at all? It's sort of styled like "Vernon, Florida" or "Gates of Heaven." It's about a nuclear bomb plant which is the largest employer in Amarillo, and the people who work in or live around that bomb plant. Actually it won South-By-Southwest Film Festival in Austin and did pretty well on the festival circuit and had a small theatrical release. "Plutonium Circus" was my first film but I'm happy with it. I like it, but "Hell House" is a much better movie.

Five-O: You must have a trunk full of Hell House anecdotes — I mean, the irony is just flying around.

George: I'll tell you the scenes that I can't believe we cut out will be on the DVD. You're not going to believe this but after Hell House every year, they have their own Oscar award night. It's their prom and awards ceremony merged into one. It's a huge night of the year because they don't really have a dance or prom — they have this. So they get dressed up to the nines, their best clothes, buy dresses, rent tuxes. It's a seated formal dinner in the church and they have awards layed out for, you know, "Best Rape Girl," "Best Abortion Girl" and so forth. And it's a full ceremony with the screens and clips. It's huge, huge deal for them. So we of course filmed it. And I thought it would be my closing with the credits and everything. The cut didn't work out that way — but we will have that on the DVD in May 2003.

Five-O: OK, what about the kids playing a Grateful Dead-style jam while actual tongues are being spoken? These guys are a pretty good psychedelic jam band.

George: That was pretty crazy. They were kind of iffy about — first of all, they would never speak in tongues oncommand for us, you know? But that day it just kind of erupted, the tongues. And we were just lucky enough to capture it. We had been around it before when it was just too dark or just didn't look right. Also it was hard to get sound when they're playing music behind the tongues, which they always are.

We actually shot on film, 16 millimeter. We were doing it as an old school, '70s-style, down and dirty verité documentary. That's why we had all those zooms and finding focus moments. Plus so much happened at night — black on video looks like shit.

Five-O: When you sat down with the church members and screened the film, what was the response?

George: They all liked the film. John was a little wigged out by it. Because he opened up so much. But he was fine with it. It's always strange with documentary characters how they're going to react to seeing themselves on film. But the reality of it is, if they like who they are, they're going to like the film. Unless you completely screw them over — which we didn't. We layed it out the way they were.

We finished a year and a half ago. The agreement was I would sit with them and watch it with them when it was done. They had no editorial say, but I just agreed — it's a biggerleap than you would think to sit with your subject and watch the film with them. Because they could hate it. I showed up and there were 400 people there in the huge cafeteria they were showing it in. Two weeks earlier we showed it for the first time in New York, sort of a friends and family screening, and everyone laughed hysterically. So we came to Dallas not knowing how they were going to take it. And in Dallas, they also laughed hysterically — at completely different parts. They laughed at each other. But they liked it. They thought it was great.

Five-O: What can I say? That's a holographic sensation you've created there.

George: It's true. It's out on DVD in May. The Sundance Channel is playing it starting the end of December 2002. It played for three weeks in New York. It got a big half-page article in the New York Times. It was ridiculous.

Five-O: How do you account for all this?

George: I personally look at what we're going through in the world right now as an absolute fanatical period. This is — every religion is fanatical right now. They're all over the top. They're all going through this high point. I don't know it it's the millennium; I don't know what the hell it is. It's crazy. But I like the idea — I've always wanted to document fundamentalist Christianity correctly because it's never been done, I don't think. They're always judging them, or it's pro-Christian. So I hope this is something that can stand the test of time to say, this is what it was like. This is what these people believed. This is why they believed it. I mean, I think in watching it, I think you have empathy for why they need this. It's more a sense of community than anything else. They need it like they need each other. They need answers. They don't have therapy. They have this. This system of beliefs. So all "Hell House" did is afford a structure to document this culture.

Five-O: Do you find that there's a kinship to the medieval morality and miracle plays?

George: Absolutely. It's the same thing being replayed with music and video.

Five-O: What's next on your agenda?

George: I started a couple documentaries and abandoned them. Now I'm trying to do a narrative feature, a regular movie, called "End Zone."

Five-O: Where do you stand on the subject of Preacher Bob Tilton, the televangelist who was busted by Diane Sawyer and ABC and run out of Dallas only to relocate to Florida for more TV fund-raising?

George: Man, the farting Tilton video? I think there should be a documentary just tracking the history of that. Because I saw a version of that in, like, 1986. And since then I've seen probably six versions — they've been evolving. I want to know who's been putting them out. They're constantly being recut with new sound effects. It's too much.

Five-O: And as for speaking in tongues, Tilton will do it on command.

George: Yeah. His tongues are great. Matter of fact, the minister in "Hell House" kinda sounds like Tilton. Tilton-tongues. He sounded like Tilton.

World Poker Tour
World Poker Tour
Introducing the NASCAR
of Texas Hold-em
Tree Sitter
Tree Sitter
John Quigley
Onboard "Old Glory"
The 400-Year Old Oak
Bartok Takes A Bride
Eqyptian Theatre
All-Stars Party
with Thai Elvis
Malvin Wald
Malvin Wald
The Naked City Writer
on Al Capone and
Ronald Reagan
HEll House
Hell House
Interview with Filmmaker
George Ratliff
The Conqueror
Bow Down, Tartar Dogs!
It's John Wayne as
Genghis Khan
Film Noir
Film Noir Fest 2003
Black Lightning Strikes
at the Egyptian
Forrest J Ackerman
86th Birthday Bash for
Famous Monster
Funk Photos
The Funk Does
Charlton Heston
Omega Man
A Very Lemmy
Yuletide at the
Rainbow Room
Charles Phoenix
Charles Phoenix
Big Laughs in
Xmas Parade
The Hollywood
Christmas Parade
Unholy Spectacle of
Glitter and Filth
theron productions