Yet another found footage horror flick. I suppose they’ll stop making them when we stop watching them. But, while most found footage horror flicks have little to offer beyond a gimmick, sometimes the filmmakers get it right.
Hell House LLC comes from way back in 2016. It was written and directed by Stephen Cognetti, and judging from the names listed as producers, was financed with a lot of loans from family members. This is Cognetti’s first feature, and it will be recognizable to horror fans as a first time filmmaker’s magnum opus. Horror is the genre, after all, most open to new filmmakers. No one wants to see a romcom that cost a buck and a half to film. But we viewers have a much higher tolerance for low budget flicks if they do a decent job of frightening us.
The film follows a young entrepreneur named Alex (Danny Bellini). He’s the owner of Hell House, a theater troupe, of sorts, that specializes in setting up haunted houses for the Halloween season. The other members of the company are Alex’s girlfriend Sara (Ryan Jennifer), childhood friend Mac (Adam Schneider), Tony (Jared Hacker), and Paul (Gore Abrams), who has been tasked by Alex with documenting everything on camera, from the company’s arrival at their haunted house location, through opening night. Paul, then, is the indispensable character. He’s the guy we spend the most time with because he holds the camera. For some reason, found footage flicks love to hand the camera to the most annoying character in the screenplay. It wasn’t Abrams’ fault, but I had a hard time deciding who I wanted to punch more — Paul or Hud from Cloverfield.
The location chosen for the haunted house is an old hotel in the fictional town of Abaddon, New York. Some bad stuff had happened in the hotel, leading to its closing. For Alex, the local legends surrounding the hotel just add to the haunted house experience. People already believe the place is full of spooks and specters, so some of the company’s work is already done.
It’s late summer when the company arrives, and they set up house in the hotel, alongside preparing it for opening.
The location is an actual haunted house attraction out here in the real world. It’s an old hotel in Carbon County, Pennsylvania called the Waldorf Estate of Fear. Apparently Cognetti had been looking for locations suitable for dressing as a haunted house when a light bulb went off above his head and he decided to rent an established location for shooting. The attraction is just like any number of seasonal haunted houses we’ve all been to. It’s claustrophobic and winding, designed to be maze-like to promote stress and maximize floor space. When the lights are on, it’s not all that impressive. It’s also not a movie set. It’s a space that was not designed or dressed by a professional film crew, and it shows. Sure, it’s an authentic haunted house attraction, but that’s just a little too cheap for a movie. No one should expect James Wan or Rob Zombie levels of set decoration out of this film, but we should get a little more than mannequins slathered in red paint and stretched cotton cobwebs.
The location, despite its shortcomings, is effective. It’s down to that claustrophobia I mentioned above. It’s an aspect of the location that lends itself to found footage. When Paul is running through the house from room to room, the closeness and the shaky camera, the twists and turns of hallways — it’s an effective and creepy atmosphere.
The film rehashes events leading up to a disastrous opening night for Hell House. Amateur footage was taken and posted on YouTube, but it provides no answers. One of the Hell House crew turns up with the footage Paul shot, and over the course of the film we see a growing number of supernatural incidents. During the film’s climax, we see the events of opening night from the Hell House employees’ perspective, which almost fills in the gaps. Much is left ambiguous.
Cognetti didn’t have much to work with when it came to resources, and this film also shows he has stark limits as a filmmaker and a writer. Hell House LLC has problems with pacing and a whole lot of filler. But, I have seen many, many horror films with better production values and known talent in the cast that bored me to tears. This film has some genuine frights in it and a decent sense of atmosphere. It gets a little bogged down in tropes and cliché, and has a hokey ending, but if one can appreciate it for what it is, it’s a neat little horror flick.