Ever since The Blair Witch Project made a wild amount of bank for a group of folks shaking a camera in the woods, we’ve been inundated – or blessed, depending on your inclination, I don’t know you – with found footage horror. Some do novel things with the genre and are genuinely entertaining for it (e.g., Cloverfield), whereas most are gutter trash, and if you have even a passing interest in horror you’ve encountered these entities.
But, it is October, and that means there are many a horror film to watch, and after an extremely long absence I will be taking you on this journey, dear reader. Whether these movies are good or numbing, we will have each other.
All the above brings us to Hell House LLC, a very indie found footage film that doesn’t initially stick much from the pack, and with a title like that the chances are fairly high we’re in for a dire time, but it’s spawned two sequels, so obviously it must do something right. Right?
At any rate, Hell House tells the tale of a quintuple dressing the Abaddon Hotel, an abandoned squabble in upstate New York, as their annual haunt. Things go awry. Easy enough.
Off the bat, Hell House blows its load, informing us that a horrible tragedy occurred on opening night, fifteen people died, survivors are forever scarred, all that. We get some scattered footage and dramatic expert commentary, emphasising that Bad Things Have Happened, generally revolving around the basement. The movie very much wants us to know the basement’s important. A producer, Diane (Alice Bahlke), and her crew have nabbed Sara (Ryan Jennifer), the sole survivor of the Hell House company’s quintuple, who offers tapes of the event itself and what led up to it. And we have a movie.
None of this is exactly bad on paper. Hype up the tragedy so we’re always anticipating the impending Bad Things, that’s well and good. In doing this Hell House puts itself in a corner, though. Instead of relying on any organic buildup, which we would’ve gotten had we just followed the quintuple from the beginning, the movie sets itself an ultimatum: absolutely deliver on the basement and the tragedy or bust. We’ll get to that in a moment. In the meantime, we have the exploits of the Hell House company and their efforts to convert the Abaddon Hotel into something functional (the actual effort to turn it into a haunt is largely brushed past, which is probably for the best), all the while dealing with increasingly bizarre occurrences.
And thank god for these occurrences, because they swoop in to save a movie actively on the verge of cratering. This is especially true in the first half, where I grew ever more impatient waiting for something to happen. Right before I was about to write off the entire thing, Hell House brings out an ominous clown mannequin stained in fake blood and everything becomes rosier from there, as though writer/director Stephen Cognetti snapped out of making mostly flatlining character moments and went, “Oh, fuck, right, I’m making a scary movie.” There are many elements in Hell House‘s favour, almost all hedged within its production design. The bulk of the movie’s set in the Abaddon itself, chocked with narrow corridors, shadowy corners, and a general sense of decay. Cognetti and cinematographer Brian C. Harnick are broadly aware of how to use this space and how our eyes will wander within, how we’ll examine for anything ‘off,’ and they use it to supremely creepy effect. Even when things stop happening, you get the distinct feeling things could resurge right away, leading to a constant, palpable sense of danger.
Hell House mostly keeps that momentum going, despite cross-cutting these events with more present-day expert commentary in a traditional documentary format, most of which choreographs unfortunate happenings before said happenings happen. It’s kind of like two different movies intersecting – one about the Hell House company, the other about the aftermath of their Abaddon haunt – and I’m not sure Cognetti possesses the directorial prowess to strike the perfect balance between them. The present-day stuff’s always on the precipice of sabotaging the rest of the movie in that it’s a) the least engaging part, and b) adds little to the horror factor, opting to hype us for scary things when they speak for themselves just fine (one journalist describes how a person in the Hell House company cut their own throat, and later in the movie the Hell House guy does just that, and the movie lingers on this like it’s quite a shocker). That said, it feels like an exercise in trying to make scares work despite pre-emptively showing their hand, and it’s kind of impressive that most of them indeed still work.
These scares aren’t all perfect, however. Hell House relies a lot on the “creepy entity suddenly there, suddenly not” trick, and clown mannequins can only go so far, although I’ll note these get more mileage than one might think. This leads me to the basement/tragedy finale, and oh my is it a little bit of a disaster. Rather than capitalizing on the drawn out dread the movie partakes in, it opts for full on chaos – this would be fine, but remember that this is a found footage film, AKA “chaos” means a ton of shaking and a general sense that you have no fucking idea what’s happening. It does not establish well why the haunted housegoers – or us – ought to be horrified by whatever’s going on in the basement, for the tragedy involves a hooded paranormal figure (that’s clearly some guy in what looks like a cheap Spirit Halloween mask) wandering around and doing what I presume to be bad things, but the movie gives us no concept what these bad things really are, there isn’t a “wow” moment. Hell House isn’t a gory movie, but the big basement blowout presented the ideal opportunity for some spectacle. It kind of needed that spectacle, as what we have now is a lot of screaming, general confusion, and a sense of slap-dashedness that isn’t so much scary as it’s deflating and occasionally annoying (Cognetti’s a fan of cheap distortion effects here that are supposed to give the impression the camera’s getting fucked with, but it ends up being overtly amateur). There’s a ‘twist’ at the very end that I think I like for its tackiness, and how it kind of hilariously abandons the notion we’re watching some documentary of a real-life event, but it still lacks that oomph the movie needed to cap things off.
That said, it mostly gets its spooks right, and if you take the movie at pure face value (and watch it well aware it’s low-budget and you shouldn’t have many expectations) it’s fairly enjoyable. The characters are appallingly dumb in the best way – my favourite recurring bit is the clown mannequin showing up in random places and each character freaking out every time, essentially going, “I sure hope that third incident was a one-off.” There’s even a moment where one guy, Tony (Jared Hacker), has the good sense to quit the Hell House quintuple, but we cut to a scene where him and Andrew (Alex Schneider), who looks broadly like Linguini from Ratatouille, are sitting in a field, where both parties are lamenting over some vague reason they can’t leave, and how Tony should’ve known earlier. Nobody follows up on this, it’s just an easy plot device to guide Tony to his death with everyone else, and I love how Cognetti doesn’t even bother to justify it. That’s Hell House for you; it doesn’t make much sense, but it doesn’t have to when it knows its dark hallways and creepy mannequins carry the show anyway, and it largely wins that gamble in spite of its botched finale and a narrative structure that seems designed to harm the movie. You could do worse – not a glowing critique, but one almost uniquely fitting for Hell House LLC.