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.
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.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica