Hell House LLC probably suffered somewhat from audience burnout with found-footage horror (FFH). Despite a release almost two years ago to most VOD-streaming platforms, Stephen Cognetti’s fun little horror film has largely languished in obscurity. I saw it for the first time last fall and was pleasantly surprised. With a Shudder-exclusive sequel released earlier this week, I thought it would be worth given Hell House LLC a second look.
As the film opens, news footage and interviews recount Hell House LLC’s disastrous opening night five years earlier. Once an abandoned hotel, Alex Taylor and his crew converted the dilapidated building in Abaddon, New York, into a haunted attraction. On its opening night, 15 people died under unusual circumstances, including all of the crew but one survivor – Sara Havel. Investigators failed to find any explanations.
After several years of silence, Sara Havel contacts a documentary crew investigating the tragedy at the Abaddon Hotel. She arrives at her interview with hours of previously unseen footage taken by the Hell House LLC crew. According to Sara, the footage documents the events leading up to the tragedy that claimed the lives of her friends and co-workers. But does her footage have any answers? And why has Sara re-surfaced five years later?
Hell House LLC Does Found-Footage Right
Hell House LLC doesn’t make any effort to re-invent the found-footage wheel. Writer and director Stephen Cognetti doesn’t introduce any new kinks to the format. Nor does he adopt the approach to introduce some subtext to his movie. Instead Cognetti focuses on crafting a fun, creepy found-footage horror film that perfectly captures what The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity did very well.
…Hell House LLC is an almost perfectly paced film.
Like both those found-footage classics, Hell House LLC is an almost perfectly paced film. Cognetti slowly but deliberately turns the dial on the horror. There are some early moments where the movie feels like it’s dragging its feet. Cognetti needs to do some story place-setting and his characters aren’t necessarily interesting enough to carry these early bits. But once Alex and his crew movie into the Abaddon Hotel, Hell House LLC picks up the scares as each night passes. This may sound like faint praise, but too many horror films struggle build any sense of momentum. In contrast, Hell House LLC builds and builds on each scare.
No Clowning Around at the Abaddon Hotel
Hell House LLC also boasts several stand-out moments that illustrate how well the found-footage format can work when done right. Cognetti effectively uses the entire screen as he inserts creepy images into the background with quickly edited glimpses. Shadowy figures come in and out of focus in the corner of the screen. When found footage is done right, it can really strip away at the ‘produced’ feeling of some movies. As a result, something as simple as a shadowy figure standing in a doorway can be once unbearably frightening. A scene where one crew members wakes up to find an unwelcome guest in his bedroom is a bloodcurdling standout.
But Cognetti cleverly uses the format to how you bits and pieces of what transpired, leaving just enough to your own imagination.
As a warning – if you have a problem with clowns, Hell House LLC will get under your skin. Not quite as scary as Pennywise or Art the Clown, Hell House LLC gets several good jumps out of one simple clown prop. In fact, one of the strengths of Hell House LLC is how it turns the simple, cheap props from haunt attractions into genuinely scary bits. The film’s climax features all the jarring shakiness you have come to expect from found-footage films. But Cognetti cleverly uses the format to show you bits and pieces of what transpired, leaving just enough to your own imagination.
Hell House LLC Benefits from Economic Storytelling
Neither the characters nor the performances will stand out for most viewers. That’s not to say that any of the actors turn in poor performances. It’s simply that Hell House LLC is more focused on scares, which quite frankly, do not require deep characters. Where Cognetti excels is with an economical approach to storytelling. Hell House LLC avoids lazy expository dialogue, instead opting to drop pieces of information across the movie. Cognetti dangles enough information without spoon-feeing you to craft together some mythology around the occult. The end result is a bit like a puzzle; if you’re like me, you’ll spend the rest of the night after watching the movie trying to decipher what happened.
Found-Footage Horror Can Still Be Scary
I was genuinely impressed the first time I watched Hell House LLC. Now having watched it a second time, I can say that it stands up to multiple viewings. The scares don’t diminish at all and, in fact, there were several creepy details here and there I missed on the first viewing. Its central mystery also benefits from a second viewing. Though I picked up on some additional details, I was still left with more questions than answers. And I mean that in the best way possible. Hell House LLC marks an excellent addition to the found-footage horror family. Now here’s hoping the follow-up does it justice.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B+