Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Hell House LLC (2015)

Some years ago, a commercial haunted house attraction in a small US town an hour’s drive away from New York ended with various unexplained deaths. The local authorities have done their utmost to cover up whatever actually happened, blaming the undisclosed number of deaths on some vague sort of technical problem. Hell House LLC – as is tradition – purports to be a documentary on the case. Rather untraditionally, it doesn’t exclusively consist of footage of a documentary crew traipsing through an old dark house and ending badly, though we’ll get to that eventually.

Between various talking heads and enticingly ambiguous footage made by visitors to the attraction, the documentary makers are contacted by Sara (Ryan Jennifer), apparently the sole survivor of the operators of the house. Sara doesn’t just give an interview, but also comes with a bag full of camera footage: security camera tapes from inside the attraction as well as much behind the scenes material shot by her and her friends. Much of the rest of the film does of course consist of Sara’s gift to documentary filmmaking and the story it tells.

A close-knit company of friends come to the not at all suspiciously named run-down old Abaddon Hotel to open their newest commercial Haunted House for the best month of the year. They don’t know about the building’s chequered past of mysterious deaths, nor do they come in expecting anything but a bit of hard work creating a spook show. Alas, there is something dwelling in the house that starts a series of strange and frightening events which will end with the wholesale slaughter of the opening night.

I’m always happy when a POV horror film takes its documentary conceit a bit more seriously, and while Stephen Cognetti’s Hell House LLC doesn’t quite parse as an actual documentary film – there are scenes in here nobody would ever use in an actual documentary for reasons of simple human decency and/or the fear of being sued penniless by various relatives – it certainly puts enough effort into this approach to buy into it. While he’s at it, Cognetti (who also wrote the film) does use the opportunities provided by the mock documentary format to tell his story a little differently than is POV standard.

Of course, we still witness the adventures of a bunch of doomed young people, but the slightly different narrative framing allows another kind of scares and a structure that can easier deviate from some POV horror standards. If you’re one of those people, you’ll probably still ask yourself why the characters keep filming even when the really horrible stuff starts happening; to me, that’s a bit like asking “who is filming this?” of a non-POV movie, but tastes and the ability to just go with things do vary. I found myself rather happy with the way Hell House LLC avoids some typical POV horror problems: there’s a pleasant lack of pointless scenes of the characters just farting around, shaky cam only happens in sequences where characters get rather excited, and the film’s general narrative structure clearly aims to use the fake authenticity and subjectivity POV horror has to offer without losing some of the opportunities a more standard style of film has to offer.

So this is not one of those POV horror films where actually interesting or creepy stuff is only happening during the last ten minutes or so. Scares and creepy things (clown manikins anyone?) are sprinkled throughout the running time, and the film makes effective use of the opportunities actual horrors happening in a place of fake horrors offer to make an audience nervous.

Hell House LLC does stay in the spirit of the haunted house attractions it is co-inspired by, though: this is a film built to provide ninety minutes of fun scares without terribly much subtext or deep thematic explorations of anything. In fact – and this is again something some viewers will loathe yet I appreciate when it is done as well as it is here – the film seems so focused on the scare show part of the business of being a horror film, it doesn’t explain anything it doesn’t need to explain for sake of the plot, not so much to be ambiguous but because it seems utterly disinterested in anything not having a direct effect on the audience’s horror glands.

That, mind you, doesn’t make the film any less fun to watch – it’s just a very specific kind of fun.

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