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Suspenseful doc 'Holy Hell' mesmerizes

Suspenseful doc 'Holy Hell' mesmerizes
An illustration created by filmmaker Will Allen depicting Michel, known as the Teacher, leader of the spiritual group the Buddhafield from the movie "Holy Hell." (WRA Productions)

Part expose, part catharsis and all disturbing, "Holy Hell" is filmmaker Will Allen's suspenseful documentary about his and others' experiences in the Buddhafield, a spiritual cult that dominated more than 20 years of his life.

Young, gay and searching, Allen happened upon a group in West Hollywood that romped in fields, lived cleanly, helped others and sought personal freedom. They followed the laying-on-of-hands guidance espoused by a serenely authoritative, tanned and flamboyant ex-actor/dancer everyone called the Teacher.

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But what started as an ecstatic mass hug with like-minded devotees turned sour decades later in an isolated, self-built compound in Austin, Texas, over ugly secrets regarding their guru, and eventually a reckoning (if not exactly closure). That Allen was the de facto videographer all this time means we get a rare glimpse into the day-to-day of a sequestered, controlled group of hungry souls, many of whom later spoke to Allen on camera, including his two sisters, who were also members.

It's not a complete journalistic picture, unfortunately, and it's ham-fistedly structured to withhold information for maximum dramatic impact. But that impact, as predictable as it is, hits hard. What's also apparent is that Allen — who tended to the Teacher like a slave — isn't completely free of the Buddhafield's bearing on his psyche, which lends "Holy Hell" and its unburdening a genuinely melancholy tone. At the very least, it offers up one of the year's most mesmerizing, shiver-inducing screen figures in the Teacher, a.k.a. Michel, a.k.a. Andreas, a preening satyr with a cologne model's opaque intensity.

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'Holy Hell'

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Not rated

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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