Reason for filming: Mockumentary – several years prior, a haunted house attraction experienced disaster on opening night, and several tourgoers as well as all the employees died. The film serves as a documentary that tries to uncover the truth of what happened.
What’s the horror: ghosts, demons, supernatural
Does the dog die? No animal cruelty
Gore factor: very little.
Re-watch scale: HEAVY rotation. This is one of my favorite horror movies, found footage or not.
Spoilers below – don’t scroll if you don’t want to know
Hell House LLC (usually just called “Hell House” – they may have had to add the “LLC” since another movie is out there with the Hell House title) is that rare treasure of a found footage film that even people who dislike the genre appreciate. It hits all the right notes, is incredibly creepy, has a consistent feel and pace throughout, and has good actors in all the main roles. The documentary format lends an air of realism to the story, and is very well-done – somehow they had the budget for a scene of the aftermath of the tragedy, complete with ambulances and stretchers and a shit-ton of fire trucks, which is impressive. There’s also another fantastic set piece in the “Abaddon Hotel” – which is a real Halloween haunted house attraction under another name. It’s old, it’s creaky, it’s creepy, and once it’s all dandied up for opening night it’s hard at times to tell what’s real and what’s part of the show.
We start the story with Diane, a reporter who is putting together the documentary to try and get to the bottom of what happened that caused so many deaths in this Halloween haunted house. There’s been no real news since the incident, and no one with any authority wants to cough up any info.
Diane is contacted by Sarah, the one surviving crew member of the company that ran the attraction, who wants Diane to help her tell her side of the story. Sarah shows up with a bag full of tapes – it appears the crew was filming everything that happened in the lead-up to opening night, with the intention of using the scenes for promotion or perhaps a documentary of their own. Sarah gives Diane the tapes, and from that point forward we cut between Diane’s interview with Sarah and footage from the tapes she provided.
We also get a few interviews with tour-goers who were there that night, a local historian, and a photographer who snuck in and took some photos after the incident. All of these actors play it straight, and take the documentary format seriously. It’s very convincing.
The Hell House footage begins as the crew drives to a new location the company’s founder, Alex, has scouted out for the coming Halloween season. Sarah, Diane’s interview subject, is Alex’s girlfriend, and even though the sole female character is relegated to girlfriend status, Sarah does a good job giving her character a personality of her own. It’s unclear what she does to help the team prepare the house, but she’s always around doing something, and the crew has good chemistry with her that makes her feel like part of the team. There’s also a lighting crew made up Tony and Paul – they’re the two who also man the cameras, with Paul taking the lead in that department. A tall stocky redhead named Mac rounds out the team; where Alex and Mac are overly serious and focused, Tony and Paul are laid back and full of wisecracks (“What are you doing?” Alex asks Paul one day as he wanders around filming. “It’s my day off,” Paul responds. “What? There’s no days off, get back to work!”).
Paul, as the main cameraman, is the head jokester; he has a good sense of humor that unfortunately often gets sexual harassment-y with one of the female actors they hire to work the haunt. She doesn’t seem to mind, but still, it grates. Tony is less defined; he seems to be a good-natured guy who wants the company to succeed, but that’s about all there is to him. Mac is pretty much a dick; it’s clear he can’t stand Paul, and is constantly blaming him for everything that goes wrong in that way someone often does in found-footage films that keeps them in denial about what’s really happening. This prevents Mac from realizing the truth about this mysterious hotel they’ve – rented? bought? it’s never clear – until it’s too late.
This is emphasized in a scene that’s really refreshing for a found footage film; if you’ve ever wondered why people get so much evidence on camera of strange happenings that they never just stop and show to the people who don’t believe them, well, here’s your reward. Because Paul actually does just that. After catching one of the incredibly creepy clown mannequins they’ve installed moving around on its own, Paul shows the footage to everyone. And of course, Alex and Mac chalk it up to Tony and Paul messing with them, no matter how much Paul persists. They do the same thing when Paul shows them footage of an extra mannequin just appearing and disappearing in a strobe light room, which is an awesome scene, by the way. With each flick of the light, we repeatedly see an extra body appear and then disappear in the next flash. But Mac and Alex have money to make, and they aren’t going to be stopped by Paul’s shenanigans.
Let’s talk about those clowns, because they are wicked. There’s one that’s practically another character in the cast, and all it does is stand around and move its head once. But it’s menacing as hell, and every time it pops up onscreen it gets your heart racing. Clowns, blink-and-you-might-miss-them hooded figures in corners, and a zombie girl who just appears in Paul’s room one night when he turns on the light, creeping closer and closer to him every time he peeks out from the covers he’s hidden himself under – the scares are fairly small and quiet, but they are effective. It’s a slow burn, and being introduced to the disaster of the night in question at the very beginning of the movie builds tension.
When we finally get to the big night, we get to see this scene again, but with the added background information and the footage from behind the scenes. This fills in a lot of the blanks, but not all of them, which doesn’t bother me but is a complaint people have about this film. Why can’t the crew just pack up and leave once it’s clear there’s something terrible going on there? We know there’s a reason why, because we catch the end of a conversation between Tony and Mac where Tony keeps saying it over and over: “We can’t leave…we can’t leave.” But we’re never told what the reason is. It seems to me that it’s a money issue, and that Alex probably put all their money into this new location, but that’s conjecture and never confirmed. Another question people have is, just what exactly did happen in that basement? The film devolves into incredibly shaky tour-goer footage at this point, and it’s hard to see much beyond hooded figures, skeletal faces, and chaos. For me, that’s enough, but for a lot of people it’s a bit unsatisfactory.
I have a few questions about this team of haunt makers, too. They make some sketchy decisions that are necessary for the sake of scares, but that peg them as irresponsible nonetheless. The first is when Tony “finds” an actor to dress up as a scary clown and stay stationed in the basement with their female actress as protection, since the crew can never get a camera to work down there (hint, hint). When Paul asks Tony where he found the guy, Tony says he found him at a gas station; Paul asks if he worked there, and Tony looks bemused. “I have no idea,” he responds with a grin, which they really should not have recorded if they’re trying to promote their haunt with this footage. To know that they just grabbed a dude out of a gas station parking lot and hired him as security would be enough to keep me away, just saying. And sure enough – at the first sign of trouble in the basement on opening night, the gas station clown just bails. He up and runs out of the house, leaving the actress chained to a pipe over her head, which is another detail that is necessary but stupid. There’s no reason to really chain a girl to a pipe in a haunted house; she could have easily just held her hands up there and been fine. But then we wouldn’t have had a way to strand her in the basement so the hooded figures could do – something to her, we’re not sure what.
Now, remember how I said up at the top of this post that all the crew members were killed in this incident, and then I said that Sarah was the sole survivor who shows up at Diane’s interview with a bunch of tapes? Well, that wasn’t a mistake. But I’ll leave the rest for you to discover when you watch the film.
The success of Hell House LLC spawned two sequels and a director’s cut of the original. While the director’s cut has a few interesting scenes included that were left out of the first one, it doesn’t add much to the story to have them included, and I can see why they were left out as they tend to slow down the pace a bit. The sequels are another story – I personally do not like them, but a lot of people do, so you’ll have to find one of those people for a recap of them. There were two sequels made, making Hell House LLC a trilogy, but my guess is that a trilogy was never intended and got tacked on due to the popularity of the first film. They add a lot of details about the hotel’s history, the creepy previous owner who hung himself in the dining room in the 80’s, a weird cult he led, and other disappearances that have happened since the event. The third one in particular goes waaaaay out there to create some sort of arc, and for me it just does not work. The first film was fine on its own, and it doesn’t benefit at all from the sequels – again, in my opinion. As a horror film, I think part 2 is actually better if you haven’t seen the original; it’s nowhere near as good as the original, but is a fun found-footage film in its own right if you don’t compare it to part 1. The third one draws much more on the lore of the place and the backstory with the original Hell House crew, and it’s a spotty, silly bore with a ridiculous ending. So while I will occasionally give part 2 a view, I never watch part 3 at all because, ugh. The original film is a standout of the found-footage genre; one of the best out there, and the sequels do not live up to that standard.