Stephen Cognetti

Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire

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After several years, the Abaddon Hotel will once again be open to the public. This time, famed interactive-show director Russell Wynn is putting on a live performance in the hotel called Insomnia. Wynn invites the new Morning Mysteries crew to come and document the making of his latest show. What they film is even more horrors in this cursed building.

Like the first two films, Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire was written and directed by Stephen Cognetti. The film is a combination of found footage and mocumentary style. As with those first two films, this one takes place in the Abaddon Hotel. Despite the numerous reports of strange happenings, disappearances, and deaths, a new crew is entering the hotel. In the second film we met the new host and crew of Morning Mysteries, the TV segment whose previous host and crew were in the second film. They are sent to the Abaddon Hotel to document the making of a live interactive performance called Insomnia. At first everything seems normal, but then increasingly frightening things happen. What’s worse is the creator of this show, Russell Wynn, seems to know more that he lets on and is determined to finish the show.

Cognetti’s final installment of the Hell House LLC franchise does a fantastic job of upping the stakes. It comes to new revelations fans didn’t already know and brings the tale of the Abaddon Hotel to a close. In some respects, the final act of this film is a bit too neat in how it brings all the various storylines to a end. There is such a thing in horror as too much closure. The very last scene of the film does a nice job of bringing everything full-circle, but it is still too tidy.

One thing Cognetti has been incredibly successful with in all three films is capturing the feel of walking through a haunt. There is a near constant feeling of tension just from the eerie set of the hotel itself. As we follow the camera walking from room to room, you never know if something is going to jump out at you from around the corner. Cognetti also knows how to use subtlety to his favor. The first scares are small and involve a creepy sound or a slight movement of something that shouldn’t move. From there the scares build, often feeling reminiscent of a true haunt when you aren’t sure if something is a prop or a person until they finally jump out and scare you to death.

The filmmakers also wisely chose to go for very simplistic makeup, also much like a haunt. Lake of Fire includes some familiar spooky faces including a creepy woman who likes to lurk in one of the upstairs rooms and the clown mannequin who likes to move around on his own. These chilling characters are created with very minimalistic makeup and masks. The climax of the film utilizes some CGI effects. Much like with the previous films, I don’t think the CGI works as well in this found-footage, lower budget film, but it doesn’t detract from the overall appeal of the film.

Luckily, Lake of Fire continues the trend of great performances for the Hell House LLC films. The entire ensemble cast is fantastic and conveys fear quite well. Gabriel Chytry (Altruism) plays the creator of Insomnia, Russell Wynn. Russell is an interesting character as he clearly is hiding things from the crew. Chytry balances the character between appearing to have sinister intentions and simply being an eccentric director. Elizabeth Vermilyea stars as Morning Mysteries host, Vanessa, in her first feature film role. Vermilyea’s portrayal of Vanessa also plays a balancing act as she attempts to prove herself in a male-dominated industry while also doing what’s best for the people around her rather than her career. Other notable performances come from Sam Kazzi (Law & Order: SVU), Bridgid Abrams (Contributions), Leo DeFriend (Mordeo), Jordan Kaplan (My Alien Girlfriend), and Scott Richey (Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell).

Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire is a fitting end to a trilogy that perfectly captures the feel of walking through a Halloween haunt. Cognetti created an intricate a complicated plot spanning three films, each one raising the stakes and revealing terrifying new information. While the end of the film attempts to tie all the various subplots up too cleanly, the franchise still ends in an impactful way. Of all the films, Lake of Fire may be the least scary, but there are still plenty of spine-chilling moments that will keep you up at night. Along with great performances and creepy effects, it’s hard to escape the thrilling feeling of walking through a haunted attraction. Lake of Fire rounds out a great trilogy that is a must-watch for the Halloween season.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel

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Eight years after the Hell House LLC tragedy, and the subsequent disappearance of a documentary film crew, the mystery of the Abaddon Hotel remains unsolved. An anonymous tip sent to a journalist claims all the evidence of what happened is hidden inside the hotel. The journalist and her crew, along with the only surviving member of the original documentary crew, decide to go back to the hotel to find the truth. They will have to sneak past police and break in, but the real battle will be getting out.

The highly anticipated sequel to Hell House LLC hit Shudder just in time for the Halloween season. Stephen Cognetti returns as writer and director of this found footage haunted house flick. The sequel is filmed similarly to the first film. There are documentary filmmaker shots, videos from phones and handheld devices, news reports, and interviews. This allows the filmmakers to include multiple different perspectives outside the main cast of characters. The scares are also done in a very similar way. They are subtle, and generally lack jump scares. This makes the film itself terrifying, but the fright factor has a lasting effect even after the film is over. Fans will recognize a couple of the more iconic frightening faces, including the absolutely creepy clown mannequin and the haunting ghost woman.

Unfortunately, there are certain aspects of the plot that make Hell House LLC II less successful than its predecessor. One of my only critical notes in the first one was a few unanswered questions. In a haunting film it is fine to have those, but there were some parts left a little too ambiguous. This film goes in the polar opposite direction. Not only does the plot try to tie up every loose end in this film, but it even goes on to answer the questions I had from the first film. The filmmakers end up putting everything into a neat package that is almost too clean. The film goes into so much explanation that it slows the climax to a crawl, taking any suspense out of the moment. The suspense leading up to that moment makes up for the sudden halt, but the climax still comes across as lackluster.

The performances are a bit of a mixed bag. Vasile Flutur (Far From Here) gives the strongest performance as Mitchell. He is intense, skeptical, but he also strives to find the truth behind the disappearance of his friends. A less enjoyable performance came from Jillian Geurts (The Algebra of Need) as the journalist, Jessica. This is partly due to writing and partly the performance itself. In terms of the writing, Jessica is just a generally unlikeable character because of her unwavering need to get the scoop on the history of the hotel. Geurts’ performance comes across as a bit over-rehearsed and her delivery is sometimes a bit exaggerated. It almost feels like a performance for the stage, which doesn’t fit well with the tone of this film. Kyle Ingleman (Attack of the Slime People) delivers a similar performance to Geurts, but it works better for his role as the psychic, Brock Davies.

One common theme amongst all the characters, perhaps with the exception of Brock Davies, is that the motives behind their actions don’t quite come across. In a found footage film it is so important to convey why these people would put themselves in these situations and film the entire time. The first film did this successfully, but it doesn’t hold up as well in the sequel. Davies can be written off because he is a TV psychic, so communicating with the spirits in the Abaddon Hotel and getting it on film would be huge for his career. As for the others, some of their motivations for going to the hotel make sense, but their reasons for staying and continuing to film are a bit hazy at best.

With the use of simplistic scares the filmmakers wisely went with simple effects as well. As I mentioned before, the eerie clown mannequin makes an appearance in this film. Not only is this the most frightening and simple look, but it is also the source of some of the most spine-chilling scares. There are other makeup looks done for some of the ghosts seen in the hotel that are the same as in the previous film, but they are more visible in Hell House LLC II. This may not have been a wise decision, as I am a firm believer in less is more when showing ghosts/creatures in horror films. The brighter lighting makes it more obvious that these characters look as if they are from a Halloween haunt, but that also lends itself well to idea the of this location being the ultimate haunted house.

Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel has many hits and misses. What works well is the subtle scares, which start earlier in the film than fans saw in its predecessor. It is also great to get some of the answers I was looking for in the first film. What doesn’t work as well is the film’s overall lack of direction. It doesn’t flow quite as well, likely because a lot of effort was put in making everything clear and obvious to the audience. It results in a subdued climax that should have packed more of a punch. Fans who enjoyed the first film will likely be disappointed, but this sequel is still likely to give you chills and make you avoid any abandoned hotels for a while.

OVERALL RATING: 5.5/10

 

Hell House LLC

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Five years ago several people were killed in a haunted house attraction due to an unknown malfunction. The dead included many patrons as well as most of the crew. Now a documentary team is trying to put the pieces together and discover the truth of what happened that night. When a survivor of that night comes forward with new information the documentary crew decides to go back to the site of the haunted attraction. They soon discover some doors are better left closed.

Hell House LLC seems like it would be just another found footage film. While is doesn’t reinvent the subgenre, it definitely excels at it. The plot is interesting, focusing on a group of friends who build haunted house attractions for Halloween every year. This year the hotel they choose for their attraction has a very dark history. Over time things become more bizarre, leading to the disastrous opening night. This is entertaining enough, but what makes Hell House LLC stand out is the characters, the logic, and the subtle scares (most of which I will discuss later). What I will say now is that one of the most difficult things for a fount footage film to achieve is a reason for the characters to keep filming, even when things have gone horribly wrong. The filmmakers do an excellent job, for the most part, of logically explaining to the audience why the footage continues past when many people would stop. There is only one scene that leaves me with more questions than answers, but it doesn’t disrupt the filming logic.

I had the opportunity to watch this film twice in a very short period of time. The first time I watched it on a streaming service per a recommendation. The second time I watched it after receiving an email from the filmmakers with a screener for the extended director’s cut version. When watching the director’s cut I expected the aforementioned scene to be extended and further explained, but sadly it was not. It strongly hints that there is something more going on beyond what is shown to the audience, but we never get to learn what that is. While both versions of the film are great, I would recommend the extended director’s cut as it provides more character development and shows a bit more of what happened on opening night.

The most important thing I want to say is, despite watching the film two times in roughly two weeks, I was terrified during both viewings. A statement from writer/director Stephen Cognetti said, “My intent for Hell House LLC was to produce a slow burn of subtle, yet building scares. I have never been a fan of jump scares or music aided scares. My favorite type of scares in horror has always been the little things caught in the background that the protagonists are not immediately aware of. I worked to embody these sensibilities in Hell House LLC.” I too prefer the subtle scares in horror films. I can say that Cognetti skillfully achieves his goal, resulting in a truly frightening film. He creates the kind of subtle scares that stick with audiences long after the film has ended.

In a found footage film it is important the characters come across as compelling, and the characters must also have great chemistry. Nothing can ruin a found footage film more quickly than an unlikable cast. Hell House LLC has a cast of characters that are very well acted, and the chemistry between them feels very genuine. While the entire cast is fantastic, there are two standout performances for me. The first is Ryan Jennifer (I’d Kill For You) as the lone female of the group, Sara. Jones perfectly conveys trying to be one of the boys, experiencing fear, and balancing that fear with trying to be supportive of the team. Gore Abrams (Let Me Make You a Martyr) also stands out as Paul. Paul is a bit of a typical stereotype often found in modern horror films; the somewhat perverted friend with a heart of gold. What makes Abrams’ performance so memorable is how genuinely funny and enjoyable his character is. Even while his character is the focus of many scares, Abrams still manages to do or say something that delivers a laugh. Honorable mention goes to the remaining actors who made up the Hell House team; Danny Bellini (The Drifter), Jared Hacker (Pact), and Adam Schneider (Dark Skies).

If you enjoy quality found footage, and find subtle scares to be the most terrifying, then Hell House LLC is the film for you. It is the perfect Halloween horror flick to watch with a group if you want a good scare. There are only a few minor details that could be altered to get rid of one or two unanswered questions. Hell House LLC has compelling characters, chilling scares, and a simple yet interesting story. As someone who has seen this film more than once I can also say the scares hold up on second viewing. If my review has convinced you to see the film, I would suggest putting in the extra effort to see the director’s cut. This film will likely become an annual Halloween must-watch.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10