There are far too few horror mockumentaries, but those that do exist have set the bar high. Lake Mungo feels chilling and real. What We Do in Shadows has made it impossible to utter the world “werewolves” without then saying, “not swear-wolves,” Christopher MacBride’s underappreciated, The Conspiracy, is a tense thriller.
Haunted house films are a staple in the horror genre. Finding ways to keep the trope interesting and fresh can be a struggle. Stephen Cognetti’s new film Hell House LLC, which he both wrote and directed, puts a new twist on the haunted house film. Instead of a typical found footage movie, Cognetti decides to present the film as a faux-documentary.
Tragedy strikes a haunted house attraction in Abaddon, New York. Little is known about what happened, but in the end, 15 employees and customers are dead from an unknown cause. Five years later, a documentary crew led by Diane Graves (Alice Bahlke) is contacted by Sarah Havel (Ryan Jennifer), the only staff member of Hell House who survived the tragedy. Sarah agrees to show them tapes taken by the crew that detail many strange and unexplained events leading up to the night of the tragedy and finally answering what exactly happened to those that died.
Throughout the film, the narrative switches between found-footage and interviews with various people about the case and about what happened. In a lot of traditional found footage movies, moments happen so quickly, that oftentimes it requires repeat viewing to truly catch and appreciate what is happening. By utilizing the documentary format, it allowed for moments to be paused and explored and discussed. This not only proves to be a successful manner of storytelling but allows for some of the more disturbing moments of the film. One particularly unsettling moment involves a photo on Google street view that is shown and discussed in some of the interviews. This is a feat which would not be possible in a traditional found footage.
There are some genuinely chilling moments in the film. Hell House LLC can also pride itself on not relying heavily on jump scares, something far too many found footage movies fall back on. Since the story revolves around building a haunted house attraction, the setting is used to its full advantage. The house itself is suitably creepy and off-putting. It’s dilapidated enough that it’s easy to believe there are actual ghosts and ghouls prowling around the halls. The use of mannequins is also super effective. Sometimes the audience catches a flash of something creepy in a mask and isn’t sure if they’re seeing something real or a mannequin.
Knowing right from the start that some sort of tragedy has occurred gives both a mystery to unfold and allows for a lot of tension. Cognetti seems to understand how to craft a scare without resorting to cheap tricks. The build and tension remain one of the strengths of the movie. And the pace of the film, which can sometimes be tricky in found footage, is mostly spot on.
The actors have a solid chemistry with each other. It is believable that they’ve known each other and worked together before. The reactions felt genuine and believable given the rising stress of what was happening around them. The actors involved in the interview portions also came off as very natural, which can be a challenge in a faux documentary. In a movie like this, the acting needs to never stand out or feel like acting and that was accomplished.
Ultimately, with the level of activity happening in the house, one does have to genuinely question why everyone is sticking around. The movie tries to justify it, but it does seem to take a special kind of masochist (or paranormal investigator) to stay in a place that seems not just haunted, but full of highly active and aggressive spirits. Since they are filming everything, they can easily show each other footage of some of the strange activity that is happening, yet despite some misgivings, everyone continues working. That is one point where the storytelling could have been tightened. The reasons for staying just do not seem compelling enough to continue putting themselves at risk. It’s a complaint in a lot of horror films but seemed particularly egregious here.
The biggest complaint is with the ending, which doesn’t work as well as the rest of the film and feels a little too gimmicky and underdeveloped. The actions taken by some of the characters don’t ring true. It’s hard to believe that, even in a horror film, characters could be that stupid. There’s also such a nice build to the final reveals of what happened in the house that the extra fifteen minutes then spent with the documentary crew just doesn’t land.
It may be bold to say that Hell House LLC is probably the scariest found footage movie in a long time, but it is also accurate. In a market oversaturated with the subgenre, Hell House LLC stands out for its creepy atmosphere, story and genuinely frightening movements.
4 disgustingly creepy mannequins out of 5
Hell House LLC, and its two sequels are available via Shudder.