Found footage/faux-doc horror movies get a lot of flack, but while it’s frequently deserved there have been more than a few fantastic examples over the years. Don’t worry, I won’t re-hash them all, but 2015’s Hell House LLC is among them as it’s both terrifically entertaining and effective in its thrills and chills. The film takes a documentary approach to exploring the “true” story behind a tragedy at a haunted house attraction with footage that recounts the organizers’ last days as something supernatural and evil takes hold. Writer/director Stephen Cognetti followed it up three years later with Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel, and while it earns points for trying to expand the mythos it loses them again (and then some) for foregoing nearly everything that makes the first film so damn creepy and fun. It retains the faux-doc style but fumbles it early on through obvious “acting” and a wholly unconvincing talk show format, and while a couple good scares sneak through the bulk of them feel like tired retreads.
Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire has arrived to close out the trilogy and the story of the Abaddon Hotel’s gateway to hell, and it’s the most ambitious of the three films. Unfortunately, the bigger Cognetti’s structure grows the weaker the foundation becomes until it all comes crashing down.
Years have passed since the deaths and events documented in the first two films, and the town of Abaddon has finally and wisely decided to raze the hotel. Plans change, though, and the property is instead sold to a billionaire Russell Wynn (Gabriel Chytry) who intends to stage his latest interactive dinner theater experience there. The show, Insomnia, is a retelling of Faust’s hellish dealings, but as the days tick toward opening night it becomes clear that deadlier demonic shenanigans are afoot. Russell has invited new Morning Mysteries host Vanessa Shepherd (Elizabeth Vermilyea) along to document these last days leading up to the premiere, and it’s her footage — from both her cameraman and the cameras/GoPros they pass out to the cast and crew — that captures the bulk of what we see.
Spooky incidents are glimpsed, people go missing, and faces from the past return. And on opening night, all hell breaks loose.
The story here, and Cognetti’s entire Hell House franchise, is one of increasing ambition, and it’s a praise-worthy effort on paper. Found footage franchises aren’t exactly a rarity, but the ones that break through in part by crafting and exploring a growing mythology can be counted on one hand — [REC], Paranormal Activity, The Houses October Built — and it’s impossible to fault the effort made here to build the story in some surprising directions. Intentions don’t always translate in the execution, though, and part three suffers beneath the weight of repeating part two’s mistakes.
While the first film “convinces” as a faux-doc with an unfamiliar cast acting naturally and an increasing sense of fear, tension, and uncertainty, the two sequels go a different route. Hell House III‘s cast is once again “acting” rather than existing leaving none of it feeling like real people caught on camera, and the believable reality-angle is a found footage film’s best friend. The illusion is further hampered by obnoxious digital static sounds/visuals every time the film jumps from the present to clips from the past two films. They’re manufactured glitches, but that’s not the only A/V failing here.
Again, this is a doc ostensibly put together by Wynn’s people complete with on screen text (and typos — “The following images where pulled from Isabel’s social media.”), but people act as if they’re unaware of the things we’re seeing. A woman heads into the house on a dare and records herself kissing a clown only to have one move its head in creepy fashion. Characters comment on the footage and explain it away, but no one mentions the beat a few moments earlier when she records herself and catches a room full of ghosts behind her? It’s an effective shot immediately neutered by the feeling it was tossed in an an afterthought. Similarly, Vanessa captures some troubling images only to have no one believe her. She captured the incident on her camera, one they all have access too for confirmation, but nah.
This would all be nothing but frustrating noise if the film managed to deliver with its scares and finale, but sadly neither is the case. We’ve seen these scares done better twice before (in this franchise alone), and the process here is a matter of rinse/repeat with nothing new added to the mix. As mentioned, the ending takes some mighty swings, but shoddy cg is the least of its issues as it struggles to close out not only the house’s story but also that of past characters. Its worst misstep involves the return of part two’s phantom, Andrew Tully (Brian David Tracy), who shows up to explain away every element of mystery with extended chatter and exposition. There are some undeniably intriguing ideas at play here, but they just don’t come together in satisfying or entertaining fashion.
Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire is an ambitious stab at closing out a horror trilogy, but as much as that’s an accomplishment worth celebrating the end result is an unfortunate disappointment. Still, fans of the first two — or even the first one — might find some worthwhile closure in the final swan song of the Abaddon Hotel.