My queues across various streaming services are out of control. I’m going to put a dent in these queues and review the movies that I think are worth writing about. And for October, I’ll naturally be even more focused on movies befitting what I consider the “Halloween Season.”
The first film in the Hell House, LLC trilogy is a fairly remarkable achievement to my eyes. It has a lot going against it as far as my personal peeves go. It features an overly obvious name (the town and haunted hotel are called “The Abaddon”), something I’ve railed against fairly recently here. The reasoning for its characters staying in the haunted hotel (and even continuing with the original plan to use it as a haunted house attraction) long after they’ve caught supernatural activity on film, or directly experienced it themselves, or have been confounded by the mysterious disappearance of someone they work with, is flat out foolish. It’s only implied in the first movie, but confirmed in the second; the characters stay behind strictly for financial reasons. Their business would fail if they abandon the project. Listen, I get it, I’m an adult, and I get that financial burdens could indeed be scarier than an innocuous haunting, but at the first sign that the ghosts are deliberately screwing with you, or may be malevolent (and given the name of the place, much less its history, it’s easy to assume the worst about the ghosts’ intentions pretty early on) and one of your colleagues vanishes, I think the fear of staying in the “Named-After-the-Cousin-of-Hell-Itself Hotel” outweighs the fear of falling behind on bills while you search for a new gig after your business failed.
Lastly, it’s a found-footage film, and those tend to have a steeper uphill climb toward a positive reception than more traditional types of movies.
Despite all of this, I thought the film was good overall. The ending was executed very well and proved far more intense than I had anticipated. The earlier scares are well-executed and creative. The acting is solid overall. It’s paced well. It just flat out worked, overcoming its notable flaws.
It was good enough to make me curious about the sequel when it was released, but not quite good enough to make me feel like I urgently needed to see said follow-up. Now that a third film in the series has arrived, however, I figured now would be a good time to finally see if the story of Hell House, LLC actually warranted these additional installments. Given that it’s Halloween season as well, what better time of year is there to dive into a horror movie series set in a haunted hotel / would-be haunted house attraction.
Hell House, LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel gets off to a rough start and never comes close to recovering. The old storytelling addage of “show, don’t tell” is an oversimplification of effective story delivery, to be sure, but I feel fairly confident that utilizing a technique of “tell, then show what you just told a few seconds later” in a horror flick is a good way to set yourself up for failure. It’s an especially odd choice because they pull off the opposite technique at other points in the film (show something creepy, then tell a little more information that provides context for the creepiness) and it’s much more effective. Which makes sense, given that it’s a more classical approach to horror storytelling. I’m not saying it’s impossible to pull off the “tell, then show”, but if you’re going to try it, you really ought to have a reason, or some kind of plan. Or, to quote the great Reuben Tishkoff, “You’d better goddamn know.” All throughout Hell House, LLC II, it feels like the people involved don’t really “know”; they don’t have a vision, they’re just doing.
For instance, do they know that the quasi-mockumentary format they’re opening with once again is mucked up this time by how sloppily all of the different “sources” of footage are thrown together? I think we get five different sources of video within the first thirteen minutes of the film. If this was an actual documentary, it would feel disjointed as hell before the first act was half-over.
Also, do they know that jokes about how fake tv psychics / paranormal investigators are, or out of how fake, poorly acted and scripted most reality tv / vlog-journalism is, is actually pretty old and hacky material on its own? You could make a good joke out of it, but not if the entire joke is, “Look at how full of shit these people are? Aren’t they full of shit?” Yes, yes they are. Most of us know this. Welcome to the second decade of the 21st Century.
The execution of the scares is still decent here, at least on paper, but it’s also our second time through what’s essentially the same haunted house attraction, only now with a slightly more fleshed out backstory (that somehow still doesn’t prove particularly revelatory; what you probably presumed based on the first film is merely confirmed in this one) and framing devices that don’t play to the original film’s strengths. Hence it takes us longer to get to a point where we’re spending a bulk of our time inside the hotel, and when we do get inside what follows is only good enough to make you think, “Why don’t I just re-watch the first movie instead? That would make for a better time.”
So if Hell House, LLC II‘s attempt at expanding the story is a failure, what hope does Hell House, LLC III: Lake of Fire have of recapturing the first film’s dark magic? Well, it kicks off with the idea of the by-now-in-universe-infamous hotel being reopened by a young billionaire to be the latest location for his hyper-popular “immersive” web show, which is basically just fancier haunted-house attraction that’s also broadcast online. Okay, that’s at least kind of an attempt at bringing things back around to the roots of the first film. This also simplifies the story, which isn’t quite as absurdly layered as the previous installment.
Adding to the good news is that you can basically skip the second installment to get to this third one. You might miss a detail or two, but given the recaps present in the film and the fact that, again, the second movie only confirms what the first film made easily assumable, you wouldn’t be missing anything vital. And if you were to do this, I think it would make the third film more enjoyable. The characters are much better and the climactic massacre and what comes after has some reasonable ambition to it, even if it’s beyond the capacity of the cast and crew to keep it from looking repetitive and unconvincing to a point that borders on silliness. It’s also largely an echo of the first film’s climax. Still seeing Lake of Fire retread the same scares used in the first Hell House, LLC might not feel quite as tired as it does if you’ve skipped part II.
Alas, I only came to this conclusion after I had already watched part II, which made part III a bit of a slog, despite its best efforts. It’s just so much more of the same damn thing, with an overarching storyline and “mythology” that was too shallow to even support a second entry, much less a third. It also wraps with a scene that made it impossible for me to keep ignoring some suspension-of-disbelief questions that I swear I tried my best to set aside while watching the sequels: Where the hell is this “found footage” coming from? Why isn’t it a much huger deal in universe? This series wraps mid-credits with a scene straight from the afterlife, for heaven’s sake. Do cameras work so effectively from the other side? Who was filming at the very end there, when the camera stepped from behind the camera? Did he have the awareness to set it up on a tripod and keep it running to capture the moment he and his colleagues came to terms with being stuck on the other side? Are there ghost tripods?
So many questions for which I suspect the answer is, “We didn’t really think about it too much.” Or, in short, they didn’t goddamn know.
Final Grade: Watch the first movie, and maybe even add it to your annual Halloween Season viewing lineup, if you have such a thing. Skip the second movie, but give Lake of Fire a try.