Limited Liability Carnage

by Arthur B

Hell House LLC takes the found footage format to a different type of haunted house.
Found footage horror movies are ten-a-penny these days; simply shooting a lot of first-person footage and then hacking it together with some editing (or, even worse, minimal editing) is extremely easy, after all. Hell House LLC has its found footage aspects but, like Resurrecting the Street Walker, does something a little meatier than simply presenting the audience with warmed-over raw footage. Instead, it takes a mockumentary approach, wherein found footage is set into context with additional material - in this case we’re looking at talking heads interviews with witnesses and investigators, 911 calls, footage uploaded to YouTube by eyewitnesses, and so on.

The end result is much, much more convincing than a simple found footage movie. Often, 100% found footage movies end up having to stretch suspension of disbelief here and there to answer the “why is this person still filming?” question - however, by offering a compilation of different sources and details, movies like Hell House LLC and Resurrecting the Street Walker can allow themselves to paste over such gaps, as well as using editing to draw the viewer’s attention to things that it would seem unrealistic to emphasise a lot in the raw footage.

The plot concerns a disaster at Hell House, a Halloween attraction set up in a disused hotel in the small town of Abaddon in upstate New York. On its opening night in 2009, something happened in the basement - the official explanation is a gas leak - which prompted a panic, with visitors stampeding their way out of the house. Multiple casualties took place, including most of the staff working at the attraction, and the local authorities in the town are not giving much of a convincing explanation of what happened. Five years later Diane Graves (Alice Bahlke), our main narrator, is producing a documentary about the incident - and in the process of her investigation reaches a breakthrough when Sara Havel (Ryan Jennifer), the lone survivor of the company that ran the attraction, emerges from years of silence to speak out - and she’s got the internal security tape footage that tells the whole story.

The bulk of the movie is presented as though security tapes, but by preceding them with ten minutes of supplementary footage director-writer Stephen Cognetti neatly primes us for watching them - for instance, there’s YouTube footage of a visitor’s trip into the house, which highlights some oddities which the found footage then offers the answers to. Because the material is presented as being a component of a documentary rather than simply the untampered raw footage, the movie can allow itself to highlight shots of spooky things which the characters in the footage don’t notice; because Sara is established as a survivor of the ordeal, it also means that the footage can be broken up by snippets of Diane’s interview with her, as well as input from other investigators.

The cast for their part do a better job on the acting than is typical for low-budget found footage material, with believable interpersonal chemistry and friendships. The premise that they’re professional (or at least semi-professional) operators of Halloween haunted house attractions means that there’s a nice hook for them to use to tell anecdotes about, with notable customers and difficult venues being an obvious topic to discuss. I genuinely couldn’t tell whether many of these anecdotes were pre-scripted or improvised, and in the best possible way - they flowed nicely enough and have the other characters reacting to them appropriately enough to feel like they’d been carefully written rather than hastily made up on the spot, but at the same time it’s got the natural delivery of actual people chewing the fat rather than actors delivering rehearsed lines.

Another thing which is useful about the "professional haunted house attraction" premise is that it really breathes new life into the general haunted location found footage concept. Amazon Prime is absolutely stuffed with found footage movies which have the same old concept: there's an abandoned building (often some sort of mental asylum), there's a group of ghost hunters who want to go looking for spooks there, they find spooks. Basing the movie around a Halloween sideshow is a substantially more original prospect, and in particular gives a different spin on the whole "Why are they filming this shit?" question: they've got the house wired with CCTV both for security reasons and to enable some of the pranks, plus it makes sense that they'd document the process for publicity purposes, and the punters are filming stuff because they've having fun on a night out and that's what you do, even (and perhaps especially) when things go awry. Someone filmed their entire process of escaping the Station nightclub fire, so it's not unfeasible to imagine people filming their escape from the disaster here.

As far as scripting goes, one area where Cognetti very obviously was in charge was the overall order of major incidents, and here he structures the story quite cleverly. After the initial segment in which the overall parameters of the disaster are laid out, the first section of the found footage restricts itself to the key Hell House organisers as they prepare the venue to open up, so we get to know those central players before they start auditioning actors to play the various clowns and spooks and victims in the house.

Just as the actors are arriving for their auditions we get another break in the found footage and another documentary-type snippet, where one of the investigators tells us something troubling about one of the actors, tipping us off to keep an eye on him from there on. Likewise, once one of the actors mentions local rumours about the hotel, it’s then that we get a documentary segment discussing the backstory, providing us with the exposition and source material in a bit more of a dynamic way than just having one of the characters in the found footage research and narrate it. (In particular, it allows for that information to be presented without the main characters bothering to research it in any particular level of depth, increasing the advantage the audience has over the characters when it comes to understanding what might be happening.)

In this way Cognetti is able to exert a good level of control as to how much information is put in front of the audience and in what order. The documentary format also allows him to execute a nice twist end - whereas a typical found footage piece would end with the original footage, the fact that Diane is actively investigating the case means that an additional coda can be offered right at the end to let us know how her own intrusion into the Abaddon hotel panned out. The conclusion you may well spot coming, but the execution of it is skilled enough that it doesn’t matter.

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at 15:25 on 2019-02-22
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