“Hell House LLC” is a found footage film written and directed by Stephen Cognetti. The film takes the form of a documentary covering the weeks leading up to the opening night of a seasonal haunted house in rural New York and the tragedy that unfolds.
In true found footage form, Hell House LLC has no title credits, opening directly to the footage and on-screen message, “What you are about to see is a documentary on the mysterious events surrounding the 2009 Halloween haunted house tour tragedy.”
The documentary is a composite of interviews with people who investigated Hell House, an interview with a former Hell House member, local news footage, and the actual (and disturbing) Hell House footage. The film chronologically walks through the events leading up to the infamous tragedy that took place during the opening night of the haunt that resulted in multiple fatalities.
Early in the film, we are introduced to Alex (Danny Bellini) who is the owner of Hell House LLC, a traveling haunt that sets up shop at a new location each Halloween in the rural New York area. For the 2009 Halloween season, Alex decides to open Hell House at the Abandoned hotel in the (fictitious) town of Abaddon, New York.
the Hell House crew becomes unwitting victims of their own haunt
Alex insists that his crew film everything leading up to the opening of the haunt. He believes having the footage to review will help improve the haunt each season and the footage can be uploaded to the Hell House website for fans. Most of the filming is performed by crew hands Paul (Gore Abrams) and Tony (Jared Hacker), who have the shared responsibility of also setting up many of the attractions in the haunt.
Also on the Hell House crew is Sara (Ryan Jennifer), who is also Alex’s girlfriend. It is Sara that provides the documentary crew with the raw Hell House footage that makes up most of the film.
The Hell House footage starts 43 days before the opening night. The six weeks of footage covers the crew arriving at the abandoned hotel, setting up and troubleshooting the props, hiring temporary actors to perform at the haunt, and the opening night itself. The crew also live in the hotel during the six week period as they prepare for opening night.
The preparation starts out innocently enough as the Hell House members arrive at the abandoned hotel for the first time and explore the broken down location that will soon become a lively attraction for enthusiastic patrons seeking a good scare. Curiously, when the crew ventures into the basement, they find pentagrams inscribed on the walls and bibles strewn on the floor. Unbeknownst to the Hell House crew, the ancient hotel has a sordid and terrifying past, and the Hell House crew becomes unwitting victims of their own haunt.
Found Footage Cinematography
Hell House LLC is shot with a combination of in-film cameras including handheld video camcorders, surveillance cameras, a head mounted camera, and a cell phone. Further, additional cameras capture news footage and the documentary scenes.
The use of strobe lights and colorful neon lighting during the walkthrough of the haunt keeps the visuals fresh and interesting to watch
Hell House LLC does a good job distinguishing the found footage and documentary footage. All of the found footage scenes are shot at a 16:9 aspect ratio, while the documentary scenes are shot in letterbox with a 2.39:1 aspect ratio. To the credit of the actors and cinematography, the interviews during the documentary portions of Hell House LLC present as authentic. Also noteworthy is the choreography and composition of the documentary scenes, which includes the insertion of still photographs, text labels, and strategically placed incidental music as one would expect in a made-for-television documentary.
The found footage segments in Hell House LLC are shot very consistently and are forgivingly steady compared to films typically created in this genre. The scenes shot with the handheld video camera comes across as having been filmed by someone with an experienced hand rather than an amateur, which is an acceptable compromise for viewers watching a found footage film on a large screen (and seeking to avoid Dramamine).
The use of strobe lights and colorful neon lighting during the walkthrough of the haunt keeps the visuals fresh and interesting to watch—in contrast to most found footage films which traverse a monotony of dark woods or stark corridors. Adding to the variety of footage is the use of a head-mounted camera donned by one of the Hell House members, which offers a more intimate POV sequence than the handheld video cameras.
Given the film’s premise, it wouldn’t be a spoiler to say that the story of Hell House LLC has a paranormal element. That said, the film incorporates well-placed camera glitches, in the form of digital pixelation and audio static, during these encounters.
The filming reasons used throughout Hell House LLC are exceptional. As explained early in the film, the Hell House crew are instructed to film everything using their handheld video camera to help improve the haunt for next season and provide footage for fans of the haunt. Additionally, since the characters are also living in the hotel while they set up the haunt, they also exhibit their natural tendency to film social activities as well, which blends nicely with the “business end” of the filming.
In addition to the handheld video camera, the film also employs a head mounted video camera used for a walkthrough of the haunt. Surveillance cameras are used to monitor the activity in each section of the haunt and ensure the safety of the patrons and Hell House crew. Finally, the documentary portions of the film were filmed intentionally to create a record of what took place that horrific evening of October 8, 2009.
Found Footage Purity
While the visuals and filming reasons are very well-executed across Hell House LLC, unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the audio during the found footage scenes. Presumably to build-up tension, Hell House LLC contains overt sound design and background music during key sequences of the film. While sound design and incidental music are appropriate and expected in traditional narratively shot films, these tropes stand-out as artificial when inserted in the middle of a found footage film that otherwise has no background music—other than the environmental audio from known sources within the film. Hell House LLC does a wonderful job building tension through character building and plot setup, and in this reviewer’s opinion, would easily succeed without the crutch of sound design and background music.
As we’ve discussed with many films on Found Footage Critic, sound design must be used very subtly in the found footage genre so not to stand out. Hell House LLC effectively uses sound design in this fashion early on in the film but escalates the intensity (and adds background music) to degrees that may take viewers out of the moment. Some may argue that the sound design and background music were added in post-production as part of the “documentary,” but in a documentary, evidentiary footage is traditionally presented untarnished.
In what is an otherwise pure found footage film and mockumentary, the execution of sound design and background music during the found footage scenes detracts somewhat from the overall found footage conceit of the film.
The acting across Hell House LLC is very well done. It would be fair to say that Hell House LLC has no real standout star, but is rather the product of a great team effort and performance by the entire ensemble cast that makes up the film.
Hell House LLC has no real standout star, but is rather the product of a great team effort and performance by the entire ensemble cast that makes up the film.
Ryan Jennifer does a great job playing the quiet and reserved Sara, boyfriend to Alex, the owner of Hell House. Gore Abrams as Paul performs exceptionally as the jokester of the group, who because of his reputation no one believes when he asserts that something strange is going on in the hotel. Danny Bellini does a good job as Alex, the business-minded, no-nonsense owner of Hell House, who is singularly focused on the success of the opening day of the haunt. Jared Hacker as Tony and Adam Schneider as Andrew both perform admirably as Alex’s key technical hands responsible for configuring the props. This core group of actors work very well together and maintain a believable chemistry and synergy. Lauren A. Kennedy performs wonderfully in her role as Melissa, the temporary actress hired to work in the haunt.
During the documentary portion of the film, Theodore Bouloukos as Robert and Jeb Kreager as Martin perform convincingly during their interviews about the events that took place on the opening night of Hell House as well as the history behind the hotel where the haunt was staged.
The found footage genre is a natural vehicle for Halloween themed films, yet ironically, the genre is surprisingly short of titles. The most noteworthy Halloween found footage film is The Houses October Built 2014, which like Hell House LLC, shares a haunted house theme. Another upcoming Halloween film is The Trick or Treaters (2015), due out in 2017.
Many of the jump scares are predictable, but the anticipation of knowing what’s coming only makes the experience that much more terrifying.
Hell House LLC has an interesting premise, which is further bolstered by the addition of footage covering the setup of the Haunted House—of which this reviewer would have liked to see more of. The Houses October Built 2014, offers an equally as interesting peek at the subculture behind haunts and those who follow them. Many found footage fans are fascinated with Halloween, and any insight a film can offer into the inner workings of the holiday would be openly embraced by fans of the genre.
Hell House LLC creates a very dark and foreboding atmosphere which is reinforced by the hotel’s horrific backstory. Using this setup, the film sets the stage for many effective jump scares. First and foremost, Hell House LLC effectively plays on many people’s innate fear of clowns—known as coulrophobia. Many of the jump scares are predictable, but the anticipation of knowing what’s coming only makes the experience that much more terrifying. Add half-a-point to our final rating if you’re terrified of clowns.