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Scared straight 

Hell House

The annual Halloween house held by Dallas' Pentecostal Trinity Assembly of God isn't the kind of place where grown-ups scare children with fake fangs or bowls of spaghetti passed off as human innards. Instead, the church's notorious "Hell House" is a means to proselytize by showing young people live vignettes in which abortion, homosexuality and promiscuity guarantee damnation.

George Ratliff's documentary Hell House captures the people and planning involved with the 10th annual event, called "The Walking Dead." Ratliff takes an admirably nonjudgmental attitude toward his subjects, who are consequently comfortable discussing their beliefs. They can come across as tightly wound but rarely fanatical -- at least not until we see them speaking in tongues and talking about the end times.

We sit in on organizational sessions that resemble any business meeting (participants are urged to think "outside the box"), the process of auditions, design, rehearsals and the big night itself. Occasionally the organizers' zeal can be amusing, as when a pair condemns the occult influence in the children's book series Goosebumps. Some teenagers express hope to be cast in a date rape tableau set at a rave so they can enjoy the rare opportunity to dance. But other church members command sympathy, like the sad-sack single father abandoned by his wife.

As a dramatic presentation, the Hell House itself plays like an updated version of a 1950s horror comics, with ghoulish narrators tormenting misguided youths. When a demon taunts a man dying of AIDS, the show sounds uncomfortably like it hates the sinner as well as the sin. But Hell House engrossingly maintains its objective tone, letting the church members save or damn themselves, based on who's watching.

Hell House screens June 7 at 8:30 p.m. at the Regal Hollywood 24 Cinema.

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