Directed by: Will Allen.
I find cults utterly fascinating, mostly because I want to know how people find themselves under their spell in the first place. When I watch a film like Holy Hell, and here the Cult leader – named Michel (at least at first, he’ll have more times in time), talk about his beliefs, and nature, and on and on, I feel my eyes rolling so hard they practically fall out of my head. How are people like Michel able to convince so many people to follow them, especially since it doesn’t seem like he has all that much of a belief system to cling to? Will Allen, who directed the film, which is made up of footage he shot during the 22 year period he was in the cult – beginning in the 1980s – interspersed with interview footage with people, who like him are now former members, really should have been able to answer that question. The problem is though that it never really does. For a film that is directed by a former member – one who was close to the leader for decades, who was perhaps his chief propagandist, who ends up being both a victim of the leader, and complicit in other victimization, we never really get a sense of who the hell Allen is. It is the type of gaping hole at the center of a supposed first person documentary that the film cannot recover from.
The opening scenes in the film show Allen as a movie loving kid – remaking (or ripping off) his favorite 1970s blockbusters with his Super 8 camera. He realizes he is gay – his parents aren’t over excepting of it, and then all of a sudden, it’s the 1980s and he’s in the cult. It starts out in California, with a small group who worship Michel, who gives strange talks about life, love, sex (he doesn’t like sex), physical perfection (no fatties allowed here), etc. He puts them all through a lot of ballet classes, and demands perfection from everyone. They will spend months rehearsing elaborate ballets that they will perform once, for themselves, and then never again. Unlike a lot of cults, this one doesn’t live altogether on a compound – but have their own homes and jobs, although Michel does encourage them to cut off all contact with their family, and they are required to go to weekly cleansing sessions with him – for $50 fee of course. Authorities in California start to get suspicious, so Michel hits the road – eventually winding up in Texas and sending for his people. He gets paranoid around the time of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians – although again there is no compound, no guns, no child brides, so people pretty much leave them alone.
We know from the beginning that something is wrong here – something doesn’t quite feel right from the start (hint, it’s about sex – it’s ALWAYS about sex), but the movie takes a shocking long time to get to that point. It’s painful to hear the stories about what happened when we eventually do to be sure. Yet, what’s missing is any sort of real introspection on behalf of Allen himself – of how he allowed himself to be suckered by Michel in the first place, and why he stayed so long. His documentary is hurt by the fact he admits that every time Michel yelled, he turned off the camera, so while there is a lot of footage of Michel being goofy and creepy – there isn’t very much of this dark side we hear about.
Movies about cults, especially those from the inside, need to show the audience what it was like on the inside – make us understand why people started, and why they stayed, even when things turned bad. Holy Hell doesn’t really do either of those things – and the film doesn’t really work as a result.