Will Allen spent over 20 years inside a cult and was filming things the entire time. Now he wants to tell his story. It’s a good one, filled with drama and craziness and tragedy — everything one could hope for from a movie about a cult. In the same manner as the fun 2012 documentary The Source Family, he even tells this tale solely through the voices of people who were on the inside. But maybe they needed someone else to put all this together. Despite its worthy plot and the wealth of great footage with which it had to work, Holy Hell is a mess.
Allen was a member of Buddhafield, a spiritual society (consisting of 150-some devotees at its peak) based in West Hollywood, and then Austin, between 1985 and the mid-2000s. As is usually the case with cults, the former members of the group featured in this doc all speak about feeling adrift in life, searching for answers regarding the nature of the universe. Their answer came in the form of “Michel,” an enigmatic man who could seemingly transfer bliss into their heads with a mere touch. Even for a Gen-X cult leader, Michel’s actual philosophy is vague and inconsistent, but plenty of young people fell in with him anyway.
They had to be young. And fit. And willing to act, essentially, as body slaves in the style of the royalty of antiquity. Michel is a fascinating character; this film’s many faults aside, it has a documentary villain for the ages. He moves with poise of pure pomposity, so confident is he in the devotion of his followers. He often struts his fake-bronzed, muscular body, covered with nothing but a ridiculous pastel tank top and speedo combo, with a cadre of lap people in tow. He knows he can carelessly discard a towel or a pair of goggles because someone will take it from him. One man was specially assigned to carry around a heavy chair for him to sit in when in public.
Michel is seemingly contemptuous of his “family,” pushing them into escalatingly absurd projects which are all dedicated to his personal glory, such as an aviary or a theater where they perform ballets solely for themselves. He discourages sex, at points coercing women who get pregnant to have abortions. And all that is shown to the audience before it’s revealed that he was raping many of the men in the sect.
That this is a reveal at all is odd, given that the movie is told from a point-of-view that includes several of the victims, who were aware of what was happening to them the entire time. Condensing the disparate experiences into a general overall narrative — so that, for instance, the sexual abuse only comes up at the point in the timeline at which it was revealed to all of the Buddhafield — works mainly to weaken the individual voices within.
Holy Hell is generally slipshod in its construction. It starts out mainly from Allen’s perspective before he fades into the role of a general narrator. It does a poor job of laying out basic logistical details, with it never being quite clear just what kind of accommodations the cult had in Austin. The pacing is rough, with far too much time spent dwelling on “the good times” and repetitive segments about the group’s activities. And that’s before the mistakes that are less specific to this movie and more emblematic of shoddy non-fiction filmmaking in general. Despite the sheer breadth of footage at his disposal, Allen rarely trusts it to speak for itself, instead employing tiresomely extensive voiceover exposition.
Everyone within Buddhafield had their own “service” to perform. Allen was the movie guy, documenting their activities and directing propaganda for them. This all-feeling, no-polish sensibility is sadly present here as well. One cannot doubt the emotion for a moment — Allen has convinced many of his old friends to make harrowing confessions to his camera — and the sheer strength of the subject matter is sometimes strong enough to transcend the poor presentation. In the picture’s final minutes, it reveals that Michel now has a brand-new cult in Hawaii. If this documentary manages to incite a movement to take him down (it’s perfect for Netflix), then its existence is probably justified. But, overall, Holy Hell is a disappointing misfire.
Holy Hell played at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and opens on March 27.