Hell House LLC (2015)

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The phrase ‘Hell House’ in a title – as in John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House (1973), Mitch Marcus’ The Haunting of Hell House (1999) and Jason Crowe, Roni Jonah and T.J. Moreschi’s Hell House (2009) – is a clear indicator of horror to come, almost certainly of the ‘haunted house’ variety. Sure enough, that is exactly what writer/director Stephen Cognetti’s Hell House LLC  also delivers – except that the addition of those initials, the standard abbreviation in America for ‘limited liability company’, also marks this film’s particular brand of horror as a commercialised, commodified construct, available for the paying customer. Which of course, one way or other, it is. 

This sort of reflexive self-awareness is inscribed in the very form of Cognetti”s film. Presenting itself as found footage, it follows a documentary crew, led by Diane Graves (Alice Bahlke), as they try to reconstruct, five years after the event, what happened on 8th October, 2009, opening night of a Halloween haunt attraction in Rockland County, upstate New York, where fifteen people – including staff and clients – mysteriously died. After a conspiratorial information blackout, the only publicly available evidence of the event is the Youtube upload of a surviving customer’s panicky mobile phone footage of the night, the audio recording of a garbled 911 call from the house to the police, and some photos of the crime scene taken days later by journalist Martin Cliver (Jeb Kreager). Diane, however, has had something of a coup: Sara Havel (Ryan Jennifer), the only surviving – and long missing – member of the ‘Hell House’ staff, has reached out to Diane, agreeing to be interviewed, and providing unseen video footage shot by her fellow staff members in the month and a half that they spent converting the abandoned Abaddon Hotel into a haunt. Yet even as, clip by clip, this filmed material suggests that, beyond all the hokey frights, grotesque dummies and fakeouts being installed in the old house, a real terror is lurking, Diane’s own documentary is becoming just another layer in the found footage that constitutes Hell House LLC

“These are people who were paying for the scare experience in a controlled environment. And in the end what they got was total chaos.” So says author Robert Lyons (Theodore Bouloukos), one of several ‘talking heads’ whose filmed contributions punctuate Diane’s documentary. Lyons is talking about the fate of the 25 victims, but his words equally apply to anyone – just like you and me – who chooses to watch a horror film like Hell House LLC. For like all found footage, Cognetti’s film constantly flirts with the idea that its controlled entertainments might be concealing something real that genuinely endangers those who experience it. Conversely, the footage that Sara supplies, which constitutes most of the film’s duration, shows Sara, her boyfriend Alex (Danny Bellini), Tony (Jared Hecker), Mac (Adam Schneider) and cameraman Paul (Gore Abrams) simultaneously building from scratch a haunted house experience while uncovering their own, already there just waiting for them. For in this dark old house, their increasingly creepy encounters with a resident evil serve both to deconstruct and reconstruct horror tropes before our confused eyes, as they – and we with them – struggle to distinguish contrived illusions and cheap thrills from a kind of fear more deeply embedded in the house’s history and foundations.

This is a slow build, first letting us get to know the ensemble of well-written characters as they work and clown together in the hotel, before it gradually subjects them to a crescendo of unnerving intrusions. “We’ve gotta keep Hell House fresh,” insists Alex. Cognetti, too, repeatedly finds new uses for hoary old devices, allowing the team to become haunted by their own grisly props (including some very disturbing life-sized clown dolls) – tools of their trade which they know are fake. It is a clever way of toying with the viewer’s own suspension of disbelief, as Hell House LLC keeps showing us behind the scenes of its own scares, while still scaring the crap out of us anyway. “This isn’t part of the show!” shouts haunt actress Melissa (Lauren A. Kennedy) in the film’s end – but the boundary between Paul’s footage, Diane’s documentary and Cognetti’s film, between ‘Hell House’ and Hell House, is not always so easy to see (‘2C’ being a key phrase in the film).

Horror is a genre which allows viewers to confront their anxieties from within a familiar safe space. Hell House LLC walks us repeatedly through just such a space, shows us exactly how anxieties can be manipulated for fun and profit, and then conjures some profoundly unsettling chaos, reducing us to terrified children who, like Paul, hide under the sheets, both afraid and desirous to peep out at what we know cannot really be there. You go looking to recreate hell, and you just might find it.

Summary: Stephen Cognetti’s found-footage frightfest shows the making of its own haunt

© Anton Bitel