There's reason for skepticism when you hear that a new documentary plays like a thriller. That suggests that the filmmakers have favored suspense over documenting — that the specifics of real life will be arranged according to the logic of plotting rather than reportage. Will Allen's sunny gut-punch cult exposé, Holy Hell, plays like a thriller, all right, with a darkness edging slowly over its swimsuit revelry, but Allen never cheats in the interest of suspense. He simply shows us the beaming followers of a charismatic, Speedo-wearing Teacher in the throes of bliss and then, as everyone ages, disillusioned and finally disgusted. It's like one of those time-lapse flowers in an old Disney nature film, except we see, over 100 minutes, a blooming in reverse — we see certainty die.
For years, starting in the mid-1980s, Allen served as the official filmmaker of the Buddhafield, a band of beautiful California seekers who devoted their lives to the Teacher in hope of enlightenment and connection. The Teacher was a former dancer with six-pack abs, some hypnotic ability, impractical ideas about chastity and sufficient radiance/chutzpah to get away with calling the model-like men and women who followed him “disciples.” Allen spent decades in service behind the camera, and that footage, beatific yet terrifying, comprises much of the film: See the sun-kissed followers hug and tremble in the surf, the Teacher so buff and golden he could be the little man on top of sports trophies. (He was once an actor, onscreen for a couple seconds in the final scene of Rosemary's Baby.)
He talks about love, his voice fluty, and he leads everyone in sing-alongs on the subject. Sometimes he presses his forehead to a disciple's in a ritual that perverts the Buddhist Shakti — it's a transference of souls, we're told, and the lucky transferees flop about afterward as happy and useless as the lotus eaters. “We used to joke in the early days, 'If this is a cult, then it's a very good cult,'” a follower says in one of the intimate recent interviews.
All cults must seem like that at the start. Their power, of course, comes from teaching adherents that it's wrong ever to question anything — that the very act of questioning destroys the transcendence toward which everyone is striving. “You need to drop your mind,” the believers would say to any of their number who asked why, if sex corrupts their positive energy, their leader demanded they all be so good-looking, so fit, so barely clothed? Or why, privately, he urged some of them toward plastic surgery and demanded that one woman pretend to have cancer so that he could dazzle the rest by pretending to cure it. To doubt would kill his favor and make one less likely to be deemed ready to experience “The Knowing,” the chance to feel the very “touch and taste” of God — to be, as the Teacher puts it, “drunk with the divine.”
Allen can't show us the disciples actually facing those qualms. The Teacher demanded he turn off the camera anytime there was an argument — or anytime the Teacher blew up into a rage, an increasingly common occurrence as the ’90s dawned and some concerned family members sicced the Cult Awareness Network on the Buddhafield. Instead, those believers recount their doubts now, in stunned disbelief. Some apologize for having sided with the Teacher when first hearing the worst of the accusations: that after private therapy sessions this leader had been sexually abusing the youngest of the men. One admits to defending the Teacher despite having been raped by him once a week for years.
Allen, too, was a victim of coerced sex. His interview subjects know his history, and he knows theirs, and that shared trauma heightens every emotion in the film. “I knew you intimately for 25 years and never knew that you were suffering,” one says, right into Allen's camera. The film offers little in the way of journalistic context, neglecting specifics on the cult's size and finances. But this survivor's story offers something more rare: the chance to witness these people, years later, feeling their way through such a terrible history.
Meanwhile, that vintage footage, shot for the cult, is a continual revelation. Here are the happy cultists, rehearsing for full-scale ballet performances only they will ever see. Here's a black-and-white study of the Teacher, bearing a carnation, launching into intense pirouettes. Here are trippy/arty film-school dissolves Allen put together back then to suggest, in his art, the spiritual connectives that he lived for. Here are many scenes of the disciples toiling on a compound, showcasing now the sad truth of what he actually lived for. And here, as the ’90s wear on, are the Teacher's efforts to combat the erosions of age with makeup and surgery. But it's more than just time wearing him down. As the film nears its end, wickedness seems to have stained him.