Mild spoilers for both films follow
Sometimes I feel like the term “found footage horror movie” has a bad rep. Not in the sense that there’s something wrong with the genre, but the market has been so saturated at this point that when they come out they don’t get the push or attention that I expect.
For me personally, found footage is a selling point. There have been so many of them that I’ve really enjoyed because they legitimately freaked me out: The Blair Witch Project (1999), Paranormal Activity (2007), Lake Mungo (2008), Grave Encounters (2011), The Visit (2015), and Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018).
When done right, found-footage makes a scary movie more terrifying. Its hand-held camera work makes everything feel closer, more claustrophobic. Mimicking a very amateur style also gives these films a sense of realism – the cinéma vérité of horror. Is it real? It can’t be real – but it looks real?
Hell House LLC (2015) is a horror film that does found footage really, really well. It is playful and creative, combining different techniques and styles of found-footage in one movie that adds depth and nuance to a rather typical (but classic) horror story.
The film’s protagonists are a group of college friends that ran a haunted house business called Hell House LLC. Their annual Halloween haunted house tours are popular enough to amass an online following. Their final, and biggest, Hell House, was developed in an abandoned hotel rumoured to be legitimately haunted. Unfortunately, the Abaddon Hotel tour was their last – something went horribly wrong on their opening night that resulted in the deaths and disappearance of guests and Hell House employees.
The local police department covered up what happened that night, so the story is framed by a fictional documentary trying to uncover the mystery of what happened at the hotel. It’s all very meta. The documentary crew speaks to locals and Sara, the only Hell House LLC survivor. Using footage from the night in question, news clips and behind-the-scenes footage provided by Sara, the crew tries to piece together what happened to cause such a tragedy.
Using so many different styles could have made the film feel messy, but director Stephen Cognetti choses, cleverly, to reveal very little about the night in question. There’s also some really tight editing that cuts between footage from guests with Sara’s behind the scenes material that helps shape the story. And because the audience is piecing it together as the documentary crew is, it creates a sense of urgency that keeps the story going at a great clip.
The behind-the-scenes footage of the Hell House crew features a lot of innocuous, random moments that we all have with our friends when we’re messing around with a camera. It lulls you into a sense of familiarity so when the scares come, they’re really chilling and disturbing.
There’s also a lot of underlying tension within the Hell House group dynamics that goes unsaid, which also really grounds the film. Vague financial issues are mentioned. The group’s leader becomes really cagey and suspicious. We’re never told exactly what type of trouble the company is in and why they all decide to go along with it despite the shady circumstances. But, like the Fyre Festival docs have revealed, sometimes people go along with things just to see a project through.
While the film wraps up quickly and you can see the end coming, it’s still successful because of just how “real” it feels. The characters and the way they handle situations are relatable. I don’t really believe that a group of friends would move in to a haunted hotel, but it makes sense when it’s their livelihood. Usually I expect people to be deeply concerned about supernatural weirdness happening, but when their job is to scare people, it’s reasonable to believe that they would brush it off.
Hell House LLC was released on DVD late last year and the sequel, Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel (2018), is currently streaming on Shudder. After enjoying the fun ride of the first film, I was very excited for the sequel, but it did not meet my expectations.
Hell House II is too much a retread of the first film to stand on its own as a solid found footage horror film. Almost everything is the same, including framing the haunting with a documentary crew looking for answers.
It just doesn’t pop the second time around and the believability plummets as a result. Why would people, who saw what happened the first time a documentary crew got involved, re-create the exact situation and make the same (bad) decisions? I know this is all fantasy, but just because it’s a horror film about a satanic cult doesn’t mean that it can’t have some semblance of common sense.
The main issue I have with the second film is the story. Every bit of secrecy and subtext from the first film is explained and made obvious. The ghost of Abaddon himself also makes an appearance that very quickly becomes tiring as he over-explains his intentions like a boring, un-dead Bond villain.
Does the why or how of this whole situation really matter? Not to pull a Billy Loomis, but who cares about motives? The mystery was done so well in the first film that I don’t understand why Cognetti had to show his hand the second time around.
Ultimately Hell House II suffers from the curse of the horror movie sequel: the desire to make the subtext actual text in order to answer the questions that viewers the first time around and spin the whole thing into a franchise (there are rumours of a third film in the works). But it’s always unnecessary. When it comes to satanic rituals and haunted hotels, some things are just better left unsaid.