Found Footage Has Suffered Diminishing Returns, but an Obscure Indie Gave the Genre a Jolt
Just when you thought you’d seen every kind of haunted house...
The found footage genre, popularized by The Blair Witch Project in 1999, is a gift to low-budget filmmakers. With little need for sophisticated effects — and an active incentive to cast unknown actors — the name of the game is authenticity. Paranormal Activity and its endless sequels have since seized the genre’s crown, but an obscure horror flick that went straight to video on demand in 2016 arguably outshines (and outscares) its more famous competitor. An energizing addition to an oversaturated genre, Hell House LLC proved the found footage horror still has juice.
Like many haunted house stories, the film’s tension hinges on the siren song of real estate. The main characters may not actually own the ominous Abaddon Hotel, but it’s undeniably their meal ticket. On a bitterly ironic note, the hotel’s creepy vibes are precisely why they moved there in the first place.
Framed as a paranormal and true crime documentary, Hell House LLC investigates the disastrous end of a Halloween tourist attraction in 2009, a disturbing small-town mystery that claimed the lives of 15 people. Combining eyewitness interviews with footage filmed before the tragedy, the first few scenes seem unremarkable to the point where you may start wondering what all the fuss is about. But as the documentary crew delves deeper into Hell House’s deadly opening night, the tale builds to a downright terrifying conclusion.
Filmed in 10 days with a decidedly DIY feel, Hell House LLC attracted a cult following among indie horror fans and quickly spawned two inferior sequels. The found footage sequences, starring a close-knit group of seasonal Halloween coworkers, are where it really shines. Each fall, they move into a different derelict building and remodel it into a spooky and profitable haunted house, complete with gory props and local actors dressed as ghosts and creepy clowns. Conveniently for Hell House LLC’s format, they also have a tradition of filming their production process, which in this case becomes a document of their own demise.
Shot in a naturalistic handheld style, the main characters bicker and squabble through their early days at the hotel. Alex (Danny Bellini) is the ringleader, accompanied by three friends and his girlfriend Sara (Ryan Jennifer Jones), who has to tolerate some believably annoying treatment as the group’s only woman. Like Blair Witch, this realistic setting provides a crucial foundation for the eventual scares.
Soon after arriving at the hotel, the crew begins to notice weird occurrences. A pentagram in the basement. Halloween mannequins moving in the middle of the night. Strange figures lurking in the shadows. You may be thinking this doesn’t exactly sound original, and it’s not. But as always, the trick lies in the execution. Writer and director Stephen Cognetti has a fine-tuned instinct for revitalizing tried-and-tested horror techniques, and after gradually ramping up the warning signs, Hell House LLC careens into a lengthy sequence of edge-of-your-seat terror.
Cognetti’s other big strength is location. A longtime fan of abandoned buildings, he scouted a fantastically spooky dilapidated house for the film’s primary location. Since most of the action takes place inside its cluttered, labyrinthine halls, viewers can get familiar with the layout, adding to the anxiety of wondering what’s lurking around the next corner. Meanwhile, the business side of Hell House provides an all-too-plausible motive for these characters to stick around. Keen to turn a profit on his Halloween investment, Alex pressures everyone to ignore the red flags long after any sensible person would have skipped town.
Done right, found footage movies are the ideal medium for effective jump scares and immersive horror. The format lulls us into thinking we’re watching something real, recreating the chill of seeing an unsettling shadow out of the corner of your eye. Of course, when it’s done wrong it can be pretty frustrating, which is why found footage is so divisive. The more something resembles reality, the more likely we are to notice little discrepancies. Hell House LLC does suffer from a couple such issues, mostly relating to the documentary framing device. But for the most part, it’s an excellent example of the genre, employing vintage haunted house tropes in a chillingly effective manner.
On top of the plentiful scares, the real triumph here is pacing. In retrospect, the film’s intro is impressively confident, opening with a full account of Hell House’s demise and revealing early on that Sara is the only surviving staffer. Knowing from the start that everyone else is doomed should sap some tension from the Abaddon Hotel footage. Instead, it just ramps up the sense of dread. Accelerating into an intense final act, this low-budget hidden gem is an ideal choice to watch on a dark October night.