Ray-Ban and Bikini Cult Riot – A Review of Holy Hell
Shortly after graduating film school and coming out to his family, Will Allen joined a Los Angeles-based group called The Buddhafield. He was searching for spiritual fulfillment and found it in the group of like-minded individuals. With his video camera in tow, Allen spent twenty years documenting the groups activities, at the center of which was their enigmatic leader Michel. Over the two decades, the group’s focus changed due to both external and internal forces. They grew to be seen as a cult by the outside world while Michel tightened his grip on them. His public behavior bordered on bizarre, but it was what he did in secret that ultimately led to the unraveling of The Buddhafield. The footage that Allen accumulated serves as a record of both the joyous highs and horrific lows of the group, capturing the literal Holy Hell it became.
“We used to joke, even in the early days, if this was a cult, at least it was a really good cult,” one former member remarked early into the documentary. And from watching the footage of the group, merrily frolicking in the ocean in their bathing suits, things did not appear so bad. They were a tight knit community. They lived together and helped each other out, but still maintained ties to the external world via their careers and family. They could easily be mistaken for a large group of friends simply having a good time. Those good times didn’t include drugs or alcohol. They kept themselves healthy and worked out often. In addition to being “a really good cult,” they were also a really good-looking one. Allen filmed the group as one big, attractive, happy-go-lucky spiritual party that bordered on irresistible.
“We knew we looked funny following a man in a Speedo,” remarked another former member. That leader was Michel (later known as Andreas). Not much was known about him by the group. They knew he had acted in a few films, notably an appearance in Rosemary’s Baby that would be generous to consider a cameo. There were also rumors he appeared in adult films, but at the time no one took the gossip too seriously. Between his physique and wardrobe, Michel could easily be confused for an infomercial host hawking workout equipment. He came off as harmless; a jovial man at ease in front of a crowd.
Michel created the regiments the group followed. As part of the healthy living, he advocated abstaining from sex, which he deemed a lower spiritual experience. He also seemed to have taken a few cues from the cult leader playbook. The hypnotherapy sessions he conducted, known as “cleansing,” sounds remarkably similar to the “auditing” found in Scientology. The promise of achieving a direct experience with God in a ritual known as “the Knowing,” was only offered members he deemed worthy provided a measure of control.
Michel’s changes became noticeable when the group fled Los Angeles for Austin, Texas, after facing pressure from investigations into the group. Cults were a major topic at the time, largely due to the Waco Siege in 1993. The Buddhafield was more or less in hiding, but still being filmed by Allen, who in addition to becoming the de facto group filmmaker also was assigned to be one of Michel’s personal servants. With unfettered access, Allen captured Michel’s increasing strange behavior, including changing his name to Andreas. He’d recruit dancers to the group in order to stage elaborate ballets to be performed only once. And he turned to plastic surgery and makeup to offset the effects of aging. Even the most loyal longtime members were strung along by Michel. When one became pregnant, he ordered her to have an abortion. Others were told to cut off their families. Members of the group began to depart. One such member dropped a bombshell on the way out, accusing Michel of coercing young male members of the group—both gay and straight—into sexual relationships with him. The man who told others to abstain from sex was forcing himself onto whoever he was attracted. And none of these young men were saying anything to each other about it.
The documentary isn’t just an indictment of Michel, but a tribute to the people who fell for his act. They’re not judged or looked upon as somehow deficient for getting caught up The Buddhafield. Their reasons for joining are entirely relatable. They were looking for meaning in their lives and for a time thought they found it. Their heartbreak is palpable on the screen—not just the men he sexually abused, but everyone who thought he was helping them. They were victims, but the film does not wallow in their mistakes. It goes to great length to show they found peace in knowing that the relationships they formed helped them more than Michel himself ever could. They connected to each other and formed bonds that couldn’t be broken by their leader’s actions.
To somehow craft a redemptive story out of such gut-wrenching experiences is remarkable. Allen loves his subjects, as they were his family, and honored them with the care and understanding that only one of their own could provide. By crafting his footage into this film, Allen can now extended the positivity and hopefulness of the group to the rest of the world while also warn of false prophets like Michel. I won’t soon forget their journey or Allen’s film.
Holy Hell is in theaters now. To find screening locations and times, head over to the film’s site.