Hell House LLC is a found footage / faux-documentary horror movie from writer-director Stephen Cognetti. This review is of the DVD-only extended director’s cut.
Something goes wrong on the opening night of a Halloween Haunted House attraction in upstate New York, resulting in the deaths of fifteen people. With the incident cloaked in silence by both the local community and first responders, what happened inside the walls of the former Abaddon Hotel remains a mystery until a documentary crew receives a delivery of video footage from a survivor. Presented as part found footage, part talking-head documentary, Hell House LLC shows us haunted house creators Alex, Sarah, Tony, Mac and Paul as they begin prep work on the attraction. Once the electricity is up and running they opt to stay in the house full time, and gradually we start to notice some strange goings on.
Generally speaking, the found footage category is not the most imaginative of genres. Outside of The Blair Witch Project and (love it or hate it) Cannibal Holocaust, there does not seem to be a great deal more to be done with the format. One might argue that Paranormal Activity kick started a revival of sorts, although it was hardly the most original of franchises. But what the found footage genre does represent is a great way for a rookie filmmaker to deliver a cheap and effective scare. In some respects, one might consider it a modern derivation of the ‘Exploitation Independent’, not only cashing in on a proven genre, but also as a low cost/high yield enterprise. Grab a couple of video cameras and off you go.
And that’s what we have with Hell House LLC, a surprisingly enjoyable creep show that uses its genre trappings and ‘haunted house attraction’ concept to great effect. Filmed and then edited over a year-long period while filmmaker Cognetti worked a fulltime job, the motivation and effort involved in getting this low budget horror movie to fruition demands our respect. While there might be the odd slow moment and over-shaky camera, they are more drawbacks of the genre as a whole, rather than any specific deficiency of the movie. And with respect to the pacing, the documentary aspect of Hell House LLC helps to break up the recovered videos and stops repetition from setting in.
Cast wise, everyone involved is very good, even though the nature of the movie and its patchwork of footage means it is hard for there to be a stand out amongst the ensemble. But if ever two actors had names that were predestined for horror movie participation, it’s Gore Abrams (Paul) and Jared Hacker (Tony). All the haunted house crew manage to stay sympathetic throughout and despite some questionable decision-making, never become the sort of horror movie fodder you want to see get bumped off. Even the constant tension between Paul (Abrams) and Alex (Danny Bellini) never quite broaches the sort of dickery that warrants a swift death.
The interesting thing with Hell House LLC, and one of its unique points of difference, is the fact that when things go south there are a lot of people around. The Hell House is full of customers and although the panicked rampaging makes for a lot of discombobulating shaky cam footage, it definitely benefits from this chaotic approach. And far from shying away from modern technology, ala The Blair Witch, Hell House LLC takes into account our mod cons and includes visitor cell phone recordings among the recovered footage. There are no feeble excuses about failing phone reception or loss of battery power.
There’s a creepy underlying occult aspect at play too. A backstory about the owner of the Abaddon Hotel fleshes things out nicely, and is not unlike the witchcraft mythology that Myrick and Sánchez built up around the first Blair Witch movie. It all adds texture to the story and makes it much more than the shrieking run around a ghost house suggested by the trailer.
It’s not all plain sailing though. Shaky-cam is not for everyone, and Hell House LLC will not change the mind of its detractors. At times the hand-held camera works against the film, particularly at the end, where too much running and screaming leads to some confusion. No matter how much tension you instil, there’s only so many shots of floor and ceiling an audience can take.
The characters are also a little too blasé at the weirdness, especially once creepy things begin to happen. You have to wonder what it would take for them to acknowledge something simply isn’t right, much less do something about it.
The purposely wonky camera framing is intended, so we can spot shadows lurking in doorways that the characters miss. It doesn’t quite feel natural and we know we’re being directed to look there. But then that’s part and parcel of the found footage style, and in fairness, an audience will go into the movie expecting to keep one eye on the background or corners of the screen at all times.
At the end of it all, Hell House LLC is a defiantly enjoyable and creepy take on a well-established genre. For low budget horror fans and found footage aficionados, it’s well worth a look.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10
US and Canadian audiences can order the film at: http://hellhousellc.com/