Archive for July 8, 2017

My pathetic addiction to “mockumentary” horror recently steered me toward writer/director Stephen Cognetti’s 2015 low-budgeter Hell House LLC, now available under the auspices of Amazon Prime’s streaming service (and apparently coming on DVD at some unspecified future date), a surprisingly beyond-competent number that should go some way toward convincing even the most hardened cynic that this genre may not be completely spent yet. It treads some very similar ground to another flick we reviewed around these parts some time back, The Houses October Built, but adds more than a few new wrinkles into the mix, as well as broadening and deepening the core tropes involved, with the end result being perhaps the most successful exploitation of the “found footage” premise that I’ve seen in — shit, far too long.

Cognetti does an admirable job of not only giving his characters a little more genuine individuality than we’ve depressingly become accustomed to from this sort of thing, but of varying up filming styles to keep the look of his flick fresh and interesting at all times. Cinematographer Brian C. Harnick certainly earns his keep here bobbing and weaving between hand-held camcorders, surveillance cams, in-film cameras, even a head-mounted “Go Pro” and a cell phone, but the transitions from one to the other (to the other, to the other) and back again, while in no way seamless, make sense within the context of the story and, for lack of a more sophisticated way of putting things, “feel right” at pretty much all times. That’s no mean feat right there, but who are we kidding? Mere technical prowess is usually not enough in and of itself to make or break a film, so what else does this have going for it?

I’m glad you asked —

Here’s the deal : “way” back in 2009, 15 customers and staff met their tragic and untimely ends at our titular Hell House, a yearly mobile attraction in upstate New York (by way of Pennsylvania, where most of this was filmed) that has nevertheless continued on thanks to the dogged determination of owner/operator Alex (played by Danny Bellini), who hasn’t lost his passion for scaring the shit out of rural yokels despite his company’s tragic history. This year, he’s found the most potentially-really-haunted spot yet to set up shop, a notorious abandoned hotel in the fictitious (and Lovecraftian-sounding) town of Abaddon, and he’s hired out a film crew to record the days leading up to his big opening in order to upload the footage to his website for the edification of his fans around the world. Principal cameramen Paul (Gore Abrams) and Tony (Jared Hacker) pull double-duty as set-up men at the attraction itself, with Alex’s girlfriend, Sara (Ryan Jennifer) providing the bulk of the raw footage that makes up their de facto “documentary” segments. They’ve got six weeks to whip the hotel into shape for the “punters,” which is a tight schedule, but things start out easy-peasy enough — until they shift their attention and labor to the basement, where they find Bibles haphazardly strewn about the floor and numerous pentagrams scrawled into the walls. Soon, as you’ve no doubt guessed,  the employees of Hell House find themselves haunted — by their own haunted house.

Getting ready for the big pre-opening “walk-though” is the goal everyone is working towards, but it seems that the paranormal forces at work in the hotel aren’t interested in seeing that happen, and while wildly uneven sound quality (including curious and ill-timed volume fluctuations and numerous drop-outs) hamper the proceedings here somewhat, the plot skillfully offers any number of logically-consistent reasons to bathe the visuals in strobe lighting and garish neon tones, keeping viewers off-balance and even downright scared at just the right points. Throw in some very good acting from the principals already mentioned (with special mention going to Jennifer, whose quiet and reserved performance suggests she may know more about both what happened five years previously and what the strange things happening today may portend) as well as Andrew Schenider as tech-hand Andrew, Lauren A. Kennedy (last seen around these parts in our recent review of micro-budget indie horror Summit), and Theodore Bouloukos and Jeb Kreager as interview subjects in “film-within-a-film” faux-documentary portions of the story, and what you have here is a case study in how well-realized execution can make all the difference between a film playing out as a dull retread or a refreshingly cold and creepy breath of fresh air.

For his part, Cognetti not only strings fine acting, expertly-chosen lighting, and creative cinematography together, he also slowly and stylishly builds up the tension inherent in his script, creates a rich, dark, and foreboding atmosphere, and even throws in a generous sampling of “jump” scares for all of us to enjoy. He and his cohorts should all be very proud of their efforts here — Hell House LLC is “Exhibit A” for why many of us aren’t ready to throw in the towel on “found footage” horror anytime soon.

 

 

Question for fellow Amazon Prime members : is it just me, or have they been adding fewer no-budget “found footage” horror flicks in recent months? I mean, new ones used to show up at a pretty steady clip on there — we’re talking two or three a week — but lately, not so much. I’m not sure why that would be given that at least as many of these things are being made as ever have been, but if anyone has any theories as to the slowdown, I’d be curious to hear them. Maybe they just figure having several hundred of them already is enough?

In any case, one that was added to the streaming queue recently (and is also apparently available on DVD if you’re so inclined) is writer/director Kathleen Behun’s 2014 effort 21 Days, and since I was literally “Jonesing” to check a new one out after a weeks-long dry spell, I gave it a whirl despite it having a premise that sounded, frankly, redundant as hell.

Shot in a fairly nondescript suburban home in Fillmore, California for what I’m guessing was no more than a few thousand bucks, the plot revolves around a trio of amateur filmmakers/ investigators who get wind of the fact that no person or family has been able to make a go of it for more than 20 days in this spread due to excessive paranormal harassment. Their goal? To make it to 21, of course.

In the “plus” column, the acting in this one isn’t too bad. Max Hambleton, Whitney Rose Pynn, and Mickey River all do a fairly nice job in their roles as Jacob, Shauna, and Kurt, respectively, and while none are given a tremendous amount of depth, the amateur thespians uniformly breathe a bit more life into their characters than is probably there on paper, particularly River, who very nearly becomes the “third wheel” who steals the show. Mind you, none of these performances are what one would consider to be Hollywood-caliber, but veteran “homemade horror” viewers will probably be more than pleasantly surprised by both the effort and the ability of the principal players involved with this one.

Unfortunately, in the “minus” column we’ve got — well, everything else. Things going bump (and thump, and boom, and crash) in the night really doesn’t do it anymore, and while it’s fair to point out that this flick is now about three years old, the simple truth is that it was all pretty old hat by then, as well. There’s a very dark and sinister power at work here (you knew that), and Behun’s direction is competent enough that a reasonable amount of ramping tension will probably keep you at least half-engrossed in the goings-on, but the directly-borrowed tropes from both the Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch franchises (see photo below for evidence) are just a little too numerous and a little too obvious to get you fully invested, and even if you’re leaning in that direction, the final 15 minutes or so are such a mess that you’ll find yourself shaking your head (as well as wondering what the fuck is even going on thanks to Eduardo Servello’s ridiculously dark and incomprehensible cinematography) and feeling frustrated by the time the end credits mercifully make their appearance.

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Certainly there’s no question that 21 Days is far from the worst thing that the micro-budget “mockumentary” sub-genre has to offer. Lord knows I’ve endured, and subsequently reviewed, incompetent garbage that makes this film look like Oscar-caliber stuff. But it’s so derivative and unoriginal that the only real “fun” you’ll have is in seeing how Behun and company string together various and sundry cliches that you’ve grown not just accustomed to, but tired of. I give everybody here credit for trying, I suppose, but next time, please, try something new. Surely that’s not asking for too much, is it?