HELL HOUSE LLC **** USA 2015 Dir: Stephen Cognetti. 93 mins
A genuinely scary found footage horror movie employing the usual array of perspectives (TV news broadcasts, documentary-style talking heads, YouTube videos) to convey the tragedy that befell a Halloween tour at New York’s most notorious haunted hotel. A documentarian gets hold of footage from the night courtesy of a traumatised survivor, and it is this footage that occupies most of HELL HOUSE. We observe the attraction crew planning their Halloween event at the abandoned Abaddon Hotel, talking of their earlier successes under the brand “Hell House”. With effective use made of their production’s assorted fake cadavers, the scares accumulate impressively. A crew member bumps into what he assumes to be a colleague in full character make-up. A malevolent “mannequin” insistently appears to move of its own accord. In a particularly well-done sequence, a character displaying much macho bravado is reduced to cowering under the covers when a sinister, silent figure appears in his bedroom. HELL HOUSE overcomes the potentially tiresome sub-genre trend of (mostly male) protagonists freaking out in darkened rooms (“What the fuck is that?!”) and the usual panic-stricken bickering when things get scary. The cast are convincing and, without relying on jump scares, director Cognetti sustains a truly unnerving ambience, mostly abiding by the oft neglected “less is more” school of horror filmmaking. It builds to a suitably frantic finale, though its sole failing is one ending too many: an unnecessary coda requires a needless credibility leap at the point where the credits should be rolling.
HELL HOUSE LLC II: THE ABADDON HOTEL *** USA 2018 Dir: Stephen Cognetti. 89 mins
A creepy, if unremarkable, follow up to the genuinely sinister 2015 film, again unfolding via a combination of found footage from different sources and talking head interviews. That film’s protagonist Jackson (Tom Sibley) was last seen in a traumatised state at the Abaddon Hotel, and his Mom still (ominously enough) receives text message updates from the accursed building. Two years on from the release of the HELL HOUSE LLC “documentary”, much “was it real?” controversy still rages, and the town of Abaddon feels the fall-out. HELL HOUSE survivor Mitchell (Vasile Flutur) joins panel debates about the events, with annoying hangers-on including cheesy would-be psychic Brock Davies (Kyle Ingleman) and multiple amateur videos popping up online, purporting to provide more evidence of the building’s sinister occupants. In a standard horror sequel hook familiar from ALIENS, THE DESCENT, et al., the original survivor is persuaded to head back into the original location by journalists from a TV magazine show devoted to exposing “cover-ups”. Cognetti duplicates the mood and frights of the original, remaining adept at capturing a pervasive sense of dread – though all the most unnerving bits of business are holdovers from the first film – notably the clown / corpse “props” that suddenly blink or turn their heads. It’s well-crafted and acted, and the on-screen debate about earlier events cannily neuters the usual found footage credibility arguments, as key players argue about whether or not they should drop the camera and run (if bad shit goes down) or obey the barked orders of their bosses : “The camera never goes down…Don’t stop filming!” The climax provides a major reveal and a suitably downbeat ending – though the edge is taken off a little by the now-obligatory extra scenes during the end credits.
HELL HOUSE LLC III: LAKE OF FIRE *** USA 2019 Dir: Stephen Cognetti. 85 mins
“It seemed like one of those silly found footage films…” The third entry in Cognetti’s Abaddon Hotel-set series unfolds nine years after the original LLC disappearances, with the building escaping demolition courtesy of the richest man in the county. Obnoxious entrepreneur Russell Winn (Gabriel Chytry) owns a media empire and is bringing his interactive live shows to the Abaddon for maximum gimmickry, in the form of “Insomnia” – a latter-day Faust for millennials. TV magazine show “Morning Mysteries” is given access to the “Insomnia” tour, and their footage makes up some of LAKE OF FIRE, alongside key clips from the two previous HELL HOUSE movies. This sequel again deemphasises jump scares in favour of drip-feed dread and, despite the familiarity of its mise en scene (mannequins and other inanimate figures proliferate), generates genuine chills : there’s a harrowing descent into the hotel basement, a scary lighting test and social media selfies that capture more than the narcissistic photographer intended. Given the three-film build-up, however, the final outcome feels a little flaccid: the visceral climax is undermined with excessive talk of “closing the gateway” and the ultimate ending is disappointing. There’s also a slightly dispiriting reference to “hundreds of other tapes” from the Abaddon hotel’s various victims / survivors – suggesting no real end will come until people stop watching the sequels and spin-offs.
Reviews by Steven West