Jonathan Rich writes for Bleeding Cool …
Discussing religion with someone who is even vaguely devout is often the same as discussing someone else’s children: if you have anything less than flattering to say it is often best left unspoken as no one wants to hear their progeny is ugly, dumb, mean-spirited or even slightly misguided.
The topic of religion is clearly not off the table for filmmaker Will Allen, whose documentary Holy Hell examines the twenty-two years he was a member of a West Hollywood group known as The Buddhafield; as well as the physical and mental abuse he received under the spiritual guidance of a speedo-wearing hypnotherapist leading followers under the pseudonym Michel.
Allen became the media manager/propaganda producer for the group shortly after his induction in 1991, and as such he had access to the video archives he personally curated for the group during his time there. At first he found acceptance in the company of the welcoming hippies focused on doing service in their community between water meditation, yoga sessions and ballet performances with their enigmatic and androgynous leader.
But suspicions begin to creep in after Michel asks Allen to become his personal masseur and not engage in any relationships with other members of the group.
As Allen found himself more and more embedded along with other members pursuing a spiritual path referred to as “the knowing,” he notices Michel becoming increasingly drunk on his self-proclaimed divine power. He even defends the idiosyncrasies of his ‘Master’ when a former member makes damning claims against the group which prompts an investigation by the FBI and later relocation to a commune in Austin, TX.
The story is told through Allen’s archival footage and recent interviews with the documentarian’s friends and family members about their experiences with the group before, during, and after his departure.
One former Buddhafield member explains his attraction to the sect when he says
“We take on their beliefs as truth; the better you feel the more you are committed and that’s what keeps you there.” The honesty displayed by those on the screen sharing their experiences is commendable.
The same is true of the bravery with which Allen tells the personal story of his indoctrination, sublimation, separation from — and ultimately confrontation with — what he and his friends so deeply once loved, trusted, and believed.
Holy Hell delivers on its promise to tell both a story about the high times and the absolute depravity of those who fell under the spell of a manipulative pseudo messiah. The final sequence showing members who still believe and those who have moved beyond their time in the cult is simultaneously uplifting and demoralizing; though Allen seems to have nothing but compassion for all who survived to help tell the tale. Be sure to stay through the end credits to find out what life after the Buddhafield held for a number of participants who survived the experience.
Directed by Will Allen
Running time: 142 minutes
Grade: B+; unflinchingly honest documentary of what it means to blindly believe what you are told by someone with alternative spiritual motives.
Jonathan Rich is a freelance journalist, high school educator, and self-professed comic book nerd working in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. He writes about entertainment and pop culture for various print and web publications, including bleedingcool.com.