Movie Review: HELL HOUSE, LLC TRILOGY
I think the first film in the Hell House, LLC trilogy is a fairly remarkable achievement. 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, or even a tolerably threatening one. People consistently say, “Why don’t they just leave the house?” after a character hears knocking sounds or maybe sees an unexplained shadow in their peripheral vision, as if destroying your credit and home-buying power with a foreclosure is worth it to get away from a ghost who might give you a few sleepless nights at worst. However, when people in your crew have mysteriously gone missing, and you factor in the name of the place, much less its history, it’s easy to assume the worst about the ghosts’ intentions and capabilities pretty early on. In that specific scenario, 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 regular job after your business failed. I think the filmmakers recognized this, in fact, which is why they kept this reasoning hidden in the first film before revealing it in a sequel.
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 Hell House, LLC was good overall. The ending in particular was executed very well and proved far more intense than I had anticipated. The earlier scares are tense nd creative. The acting is solid overall. It’s paced well. It just flat out worked, pretty easily overcoming its 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. So I revisited the first film and then dove into the next two.
Hell House, LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel gets off to a rough start and never recovers. The old storytelling adage 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 often a way to set yourself up for failure1. 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.
It also hurts the execution of the scares that this is our second time through what’s essentially the same haunted house attraction, only now with a slightly more fleshed out backstory (that still doesn’t prove particularly revelatory; what you probably presumed based on the first film is 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.”
Beyond the horror elements, the overall story has issues too. The quasi-mockumentary format it opens with 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 it even properly gets to its thesis.
Even the humor falls flat. Jokes about how fake TV psychics / paranormal investigators are, or about how fake, poorly acted and scripted most reality TV / vlog-quasi-journalism is were already stale years before this film was made. You could make a good joke out of these things, but not if the entire joke is, “Look at how full of shit these reality show people are? Aren’t they full of shit?” They are, but most of us know this already. Hell, I’d venture that even most fans of reality television shows know it’s not actual “reality” just like every pro wrestling fan over the age of ten knows it’s all scripted.
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 a fancier haunted-house attraction that’s also broadcast online. That’s at least 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 miss anything too 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 eventually unconvincing. 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 for you as it did for me 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 for me, despite its best efforts. It’s just so much more of the same, and 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. 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. Do cameras work so effectively from the other side? Who was filming at the very end there, when the cameraman 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?
I’m aware some of these questions are nitpicks, but I think this is the sort of thing that happens when you watch a series of films like this back-to-back-to-back, particularly when the middle installment is a letdown. So, my recommendation is…
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.