Hell House LLC (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
Stephen Cognetti’s “Hell House LLC” could have been a great haunted house film—a literal one because it involves a group of friends from New York City moving to a Podunk town to turn an abandoned hotel into a haunted house for the month of Halloween—because it is not at all tempted to utilize CGI and other ostentatious visual effects to scare the audience. When this movie employs practical effects, like creepy masks and bloody cosmetics paired with inanimate objects suddenly moving on their own in the middle of the night, it’s quite spine-tingling. It is let down, however, by the tropes and limitations of the found footage subgenre. Only a notable few are highly effective (“The Blair Witch Project,” “Lake Mungo,” “Troll Hunter,” “Grave Encounters,” just to name some) and this project is not one of them.
The idea that something goes horribly awry in a haunt is deeply unsettling because many factors can go wrong: malfunctioning props, drunk visitors acting a fool, discerning between what’s a part of the show versus an accident and actual cries for help. This is an effective hook, but it is not presented in a way that is clear, precise, or exciting. In the picture’s opening minutes, we are made to watch a video captured using a visitor’s cell phone camera. It is an annoying struggle half the time to try to make sense of what is happening due to all the screaming combined with rapid turns of the person holding the camera. Not to mention all the shaking. There is even a stampede. It is a frustrating way to invite the viewers into the story because we are given the initial impression that is going to be just like any other found footage flick: few fresh ideas, if any, and absolute minimal craft.
But this poorly executed introduction is not representative of the work. Soon we come to meet the group of friends who decide to turn the abandoned Abaddon Hotel into a walkthrough (Danny Bellini, Ryan Jennifer Jones, Gore Abrams, Jared Hacker, Adam Schneider). We learn a bit about how they get along, what they think of each other, their sense of humor, their experiences with creating memorable haunts… what scares them, who gets easily spooked, who reacts with anger when faced with paranormal phenomenon. I wished, however, that the question of why Alex (Bellini), the leader, chose to revive this specific hotel, which had been closed for thirty years, is communicated early on. Did he buy it? Is he renting it? Did it come cheap? Is he attracted to its shocking history? For the sake of establishing a thicker atmosphere, these questions ought to have been answered.
The best scares are found in the middle of film, when characters wake up in the middle of the night due to noises downstairs, a strange feeling, or for no discernible reason. All of us have experienced waking up in the middle of the night so the situational horror is immediately relatable. Of course, they go investigating. And, of course, they see or experience something they wish they hadn’t. At times their reactions are humorous. And there are other times when we understand why they would be upset and express wanting to leave the hotel for good. I loved that although I am not scared of clowns… in the moment the movie convinced me I was.
Details prove to matter. Like how the three mannequins’ heads—wearing clown masks—are stuck in one position. Our protagonists even force to move the heads because they claim it would be far scarier if these clowns were looking in different directions during the haunt—like no matter from which angle you enter the room, you find at least one of them looking at you. No luck. They wouldn’t budge. And yet… and yet. It seems like the longer Alex and company stay in that hotel, the place gets angrier. There is escalating tension after every scene.
The climax is handled disastrously. It is shown to us what exactly happened during the haunt’s opening night which resulted in multiple injuries and casualties. Like the uninspired opening scene, this, too, is filled to the brim with screaming and shaking of the camera. A little bit is enough. It appears as though the writer-director is convinced that the more he shakes the camera, the more realistic the movie comes across. The reality is that everyone knows the movie is not actually found footage. So why cheapen a good time?