HOUSE OF WHACKS

HELL HOUSE LLC (15)

Director: Stephen Cognetti

Screenplay: Stephen Cognetti

Starring: Gore AbramsAlice BahlkeDanny Bellini

Review: RJ Bland

Ever since The Blair Witch Project smashed records back in the late 90's, the horror genre has been awash with found-footage movies. We're now twenty years on and there seems to be little sign of the trend slowing down any time soon. Some horror fans have grown very tired with the formula and some have been turned off completely. To be fair, there have been a whole host of inferior and substandard FF entries that will have given some good reason to be disillusioned. But the fact remains, there is still a market for it, still an audience. There's something about the look and feel of a good FF movie that is still affecting in a way that more expensive, studio shot horror cannot achieve. It's also a vital sub-genre for indie horror film-makers because as The Blair Witch Project (and Paranormal Activity) proves, you don't need a big budget to make big bucks (or an effective horror film!)

 

Not many of these films tap into Halloween though. It's a shame because it's a pretty big deal right now. People celebrate it in a number of ways of course. Some dress up and go trick or treating, some adorn their houses with spooky shit, some settle down with a classic horror movie. In the last few years, the popularity of haunted house/village tours has grown and grown. You know the deal, you pay some money to walk around a building or estate at night time with some mates, knowing that something could be hiding in the dark or waiting to make you jump. Those things can be pretty unnerving for even some hardened horror fans. Now imagine one of these interactive haunted tours actually taking place in haunted location? Well, then you have Hell House LLC.

 

Hell House actually received it's first public screening pretty much two years to the day at the Telluride Horror Show. It got a US release about a year after this but it's only been very recently that UK audiences have been able to watch it (it's on Prime). The documentary style beginning informs of us of tragedy that happened at a haunted house tour (called Hell House LLC funnily enough) that opened it's doors in October 2009 in the small town of Abaddon, just outside of NYC. Fifteen people were left dead, including the majority of the Hell House crew but with no definitive explanation provided by the authorities, rumours abound about what really happened. Five years on and the documentary crew are contacted by the one surviving member of the Hell House team, who provides them with previously unseen footage, shot from the crews perspective, of the days and nights leading up to the mysterious tragedy. What we see thereafter (for the most part) is that footage.

 

Found footage horror always treads a relatively thin line. On one side is the sense of realism and on the other, is technical and artistic proficiency. Stephen Cognetti's debut feature does a solid job of walking that line and much like a good haunted house tour, delivers on the promise of a good time and few really good scares. You'd think that the knowledge that pretty much none of the crew survive would remove a lot of the tension from Hell House. However, the tension and suspense from most good horror films doesn't necessarily relate to the fates of its central characters. A good scare is a good scare after all and Hell House is a testament to this.

 

Audiences are willing to accept sub-standard acting and clunky dialogue as long as a found-footage film works on the horror front. As effective as the scares are here, Hell House thankfully doesn't have to rely just on the quality of it's set pieces and jump moments. The set-up and story itself is an intriguing one and although I may be wrong, I cannot remember a modern horror film that centres around a haunted house tour, which is odd as it seems like such a logical setting! The premise also enables the use of a number of creepy looking mannequins and props to be used and it makes good use of them. There seems to be a common fear of inanimate objects and the idea that they could 'move' of their own accord at any time. Good film-makers realise that showing those moments can ruin the fun, it's best to to just show the before and after moments and let the audience fill in the blanks, and it's something Cognetti obviously understands. The history of the haunted hotel is also nicely cryptic too. Less is more is the approach here – and it works.

 

There are a few twists and turns (especially in the final act) but it's the ambiguity of what we are seeing that elevates this above a lot of other FF movies. There are several moments that stand out and niggle away after the credits roll that lead you to think that there are still some questions to be answered. Like the moment where one of the crew is caught staring at a religious statue in the hotel grounds for a little too long, or when someone finds an old decorative plate in the hotel with a picture of a woman on that looks a bit like another member of the crew. 'She could be your grandma' one of them remarks. Instead of being frustrated that some of these are not answered by the end, you'll instead be more inclined to want a sequel where perhaps a couple of these mysteries could be cleared up.

 

The acting performances of the main players here are also worth a mention. No one is expecting oscar-winning performances in a low-budget indie horror but the cast acquit themselves well and there is a good chemistry between the leads that makes the whole thing feel that bit more genuine. The script is tight too and thankfully we don't have to sit through entire scenes of pointlessly dull dialogue that some film-makers feel the need to include to add a sense of authenticity.

 

If there are any criticisms to be levelled at Hell House it is that the ultimate pay-off doesn't quite reach the heights of what came before it. When the majority of the film is ultimately a build up to an event that killed fifteen people, you are expecting it to crank it up a notch further, to go up a gear. However that doesn't really happen. Part of that is down to a chaotic and almost rushed segment of final footage but part of it is down to the fact that a couple of the scares before this point are so effective, that it's difficult to top them. It makes a rod for its own back by having such an effective second act in a way.

 

Still, it doesn't detract too much from a what is still a very effective and solid haunted house movie. Halloween may have been and gone, but if you are after a few more scares, Hell House won't disappoint. It's a found-footage gem.

November 19, 2019

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Stephen Cognetti's debut feature is a controlled exercise in creepiness. Some great scares and a wonderfully sinister setting make for a genuinely eerie atmosphere. The final act may not deliver for some, but most will leave it hungry for more. Hopefully we won't have to wait too long...
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