After courting controversy and irritating liberals by teaming up with Ben Stein to write the anti-evolution documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, director Kevin Miller returns with another religion-fueled film, this time about the nature of hell. While the movie essentially opens with the assumption that Christianity offers fundamental truths that will instantly irk many viewers, this project is far more thoughtful and opens up to debate. Essentially it’s one feature-length theological discussion with a common theme and talking heads ranging from Westboro Baptist Church extremists to screenwriting guru Robert McKee, and various Christian leaders/theologians. Strict atheists or followers of any other religion will most likely dismiss the film instantly for obvious reasons, but any one at least intrigued by the concept of hell should find plenty to think about in Hellbound?, which thankfully feels far less like a product of blatant religious indoctrination than Expelled.
The mere idea of hell has long been one of the most used n’ abused symbols and tools of Christianity. It’s practically horror movie stuff used to frighten children and guilty adults into belief, a form of eternal punishment from that authority figure in the clouds that keeps good little Christians on the right path. It’s such a terrifying concept that there are of course freakshow extremists that use hell to their own advantage and Miller admirably doesn’t turn his cameras away from those voices. These figures might be a black eye on the church, but they are undeniably fascinating and showcase the abuse of hell at it’s most extreme. So Miller opens with the delightful “God Hates Fags” folks from the Westboro Baptist Church “protesting” at Ground Zero in New York because the terrorist attack was apparently a wake up call to punish the 99.9% of Americans that church is convinced will burn for eternity. Later on, particularly aggressive preachers/exorcists are showcased along with one of the infamous “Hellhouse” alternative Halloween haunted houses that freak out ticket buyers by showing all the ways their sinful ways can lead to damnation.
These extreme examples do little to help the view of the Christianity to outsiders, but provide an intriguing entry point to Miller’s film. There’s no denying that hell is a scare tactic often used by the church in an uncomfortably manipulative way. That material allows the director to jump off into long, intriguing discussions that pits two sides of the church against each other. There are the evangelicals who believe in a vengeful God and more modern thinkers who view Heaven as more open and hell as even a mental or purgatory state that’s less punishment than something worth considering rather than taking literally. Miller never puts the two sides against each other in direct debate. Instead, he allows his various subject to speak openly in scholarly monologues that examine at all aspects of the issue and leave the conclusions to the audience.
That approach makes the film surprisingly accessible to far more than the usual church basement audience. Some of the subjects might be a little suspect in their qualifications (Robert McKee? Really?), but it’s that broad spectrum of voices that makes the film such an interesting think piece. Some are clearly devote in their beliefs and use it as a platform to spread their faith, while others are more intellectual or even dismissive (a member of Gwar appears in full make up to make ridiculous statements that will either inspire laughs or fury, depending the audience). Hell as a concept is certainly fascinating for anyone regardless or their faith (or lack thereof) and one that has certainly permeated all aspects of culture. The ideas in play in this film are open to anyone with an interest in the subject and there are a broad spectrum of opinions to take in. Hell is fascinating even to atheists because of how creates loyalty out of fear and can be a powerful tool of manipulation in the wrong hands that discredits the religion. Ultimately, Miller’s movie does come from a Christian core, so it will in no way be accessible to audiences who are completely dismissive of the religion. However, for those willing to put aside bias and merely take in the ideas, there is plenty of entertainment and intrigue to be had. You just have to know what you’re getting yourself into. Given that Hellbound? could so easily have been an empty-headed recruitment film, you have to give Miller and co. credit for approaching the subject as openly as they did. Sure, removing all sense of religious overtones and allowing in a few completely skeptical voices would have made the doc more broadly accessible, but given that never would have happened in this sort of film, at least what Miller did produce offers plenty to mull over with minimal preaching.