HELL HOUSE LLC: DIRECTOR’S CUT: Breaking The Found-Footage Curse
Despite belonging in the overdone sub-genre of found footage, Hell House LLC manages to just stand out amongst the masses.
At this time of year, we appear to be snowed under with horror films. Halloween’s just round the corner, after all. Of those, a good handful seem to be found-footage entries – particularly those arriving with us from up-and-coming directors. The sub-genre appears to be the most accessible genre in cinema for those wishing to kickstart a career: they are mainly grounded in reality, not always requiring splashy set pieces or a well-known cast of actors. Oh, and the production budget is usually pretty low.
In all honesty, it is a sub-genre that rarely works for me. I was unimpressed by the otherwise well-received Creep, hardly the biggest fan of the Paranormal Activity franchise, and found The Blair Witch Project – the godfather of them all – dull and drab. Whenever a new one pops into my inbox, I sigh a little, already defeated.
But what Hell House LLC, now re-released under the guise of a Director’s Cut, manages to do is frame the genre’s gimmick in a generally interesting, exciting way. The film’s director, Stephen Cognetti, has completed this extended release, which features some additional footage, completed VFX for the grand finale and more character development. Having not seen the original myself, I’m casting a fresh pair of eyes over the film and judging it in its own right.
The story goes like this: after an unexplained malfunction causes the death of 15 tour-goers and staff members on the opening night of a Halloween haunted hour experience, a documentary crew travels back to the scene of the tragedy. Determined to find out what really happened, and with new, unseen footage now in their possession, they begin to piece together the events of that fateful night five years ago.
Framing found-footage in a new, interesting light
Hell House LLC excels by framing the sub-genre in a new light. Somewhat closer to the truth, Hell House LLC is a faux conspiracy-documentary, with the found-footage elements spliced throughout. Bolstering flashbacks and backstories, the two timelines – the past and the present – prevent the found-footage gimmick from wearing thin, successfully balancing the various tones and sub-genres the piece attempts. It works effectively in restraining the piece: so many genre entries fail to understand when enough is enough – but Hell House LLC has a competent director behind it, understanding its boundaries and how far it can be pushed without turning into a farce. It manages to inject some excitement into a genre that I began to believe was unsalvageable, setting the bar high in my eyes.
Cognetti’s debut feature-length is bursting with admirable set pieces. The design and furnishings of the titular haunted house are genuinely terrifying, with the clowns in particular truly menacing. He scopes out the setting effectively and the hand-held camerawork is controlled better than in many other similar works, confidently utilising the genre’s gimmicks with further restraint exercised. Scanning past details hidden in the background, the film is smart enough to plant the seeds early on and reap the rewards later, with some genuine moments of horror standing-up even after the credits have rolled. It exhibits just enough on screen to keep audiences engaged without revealing too much and diluting the terror.
It also inspiringly avoids the genre’s pitfalls: instead of cheap jump scares and music-aided frights, Hell House LLC focuses on the uneasy atmosphere and fear of the unknown. It feels like a refreshing step-forward, after the recent over-reliance on such horror techniques and conventions, that Hell House LLC doesn’t indulge in them endlessly. Cognetti delivers a sturdy film by avoiding the formulaic route and taking his own genre preferences into account.
Avoiding genre pitfalls
As well as directing and editing, Cognetti is also responsible for the film’s screenplay that brings the Hell House to life. It is here where he runs into some difficulty. There’s no denying that the central idea and storyline isn’t a clever one – haunted house gone wrong, ensuing mystery, possible cover-up – and he structures it effectively. We are drip-fed information over the course of the film, allowing the mystery to build-up and up, rather than a heavy information-dump at the start of the film. The pacing is solid (thanks to the sophisticated interweaving timelines) and some fine editing in the post-production process.
But the characters let it down. While the Director’s Cut was intended to iron out some development issues, the foundations aren’t there to begin with. Even now, I’m struggling to recall any character names, or how any of them advance the story in their own right. There’s nothing to set them apart, and while we receive some nice flourishes between them in the film’s middle act, diving into the group dynamics, there is not enough meat on the character’s bones to begin with. Unfortunately, it leads to a crop of uninspiring, unmemorable characters, each lacking distinction. So much effort has been placed in the central premise that the characters seem to be an after-thought, weakening the whole film somewhat.
Generally, it is a solid cast assembled. All are relatively unknown, but for the genre it works for the best. There are some decent performances present to enliven the lacklustre characters. In the present, Alice Bahlke plays the career-driven Diane Graves, who leads the investigation, determine to uncover the truth with traditional journalistic integrity… On the found-footage side of things, Danny Bellini and Gore Abrams are stand-outs, but the cast, in general, pull their own weight where required. They all sell their distress effectively, ramping up the intensity as we descend into the grand finale.
In Conclusion: Hell House LLC: Director’s Cut
On the whole, Hell House LLC: Director’s Cut is an impressive feat. It is bursting with creativity – which one should never underestimate within a genre typically labelled stale – well-directed and generally well-made, thanks to a self-assurance from Stephen Cognetti. With a terrific concept at hand, if slightly undone by a weaker screenplay, Hell House LLC is definitely a decent watch in the run-up to Halloween, and it reminds me never to judge a book by its cover – or by its genre!
What is your favourite found-footage horror?
Hell House LLC: Director’s Cut is now available to purchase on DVD here.
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