Posts Tagged ‘Lauren A. Kennedy’

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.



To the extent that any “micro-budget” production that is destined to be seen by only a few thousand people (if that) can be said to have generated something of a “buzz” around it, writer/director Christina Raia’s 2015 debut feature Summit seems to have done precisely that.

Fair enough, it’s not a flick you’re going to be hearing about everywhere or anything — but everywhere this sort of thing is discussed? Sure, there’s been some largely positive chatter there, and so when I noticed that it was available for streaming while browsing the horror selections on Amazon Prime the other night, I was sufficiently intrigued enough to give it a go. Funded via a (successful) Kickstarter campaign at the tail end of 2012, the set-up for this one sounds like fairly standard-issue stuff — five friends headed to a ski lodge for a weekend of partying find themselves royally fucked by their GPS and end up at an abandoned cabin the likes of which only folks in a horror movie are stupid enough to decide to stay at. They don’t have nearly enough food or water to keep everyone’s mouths and bellies full for long, their cell phone coverage — shock! — sucks, and the longer they’re cooped up together, the more internal tensions within the group threaten to boil over. Eventually they do, of course, and one of the unhappy non-campers turns up dead, which cues plenty of finger-pointing and worse in the film’s late-breaking third act.

Obviously there’s no reinvention of the wheel happening here, but Raia proves herself to be a quick — hell, an immediate — study when it comes to the little things that make a big difference : the various explorations of the cabin that our erstwhile “heroes” undertake are uniformly well-shot and reasonably fraught with tension (even if there’s no real payoff to be had from any of them), the “driving-around-lost” scenes are very nicely-executed indeed, and small, seemingly throwaway plot points are revisited later with near-devastating effect. All in all this is smart stuff that rewards viewers who pay careful attention to even the most minor goings-on, but — and it’s a big but — events progress at such a slow pace that by the time we do finally get the dead body that most viewers were probably expecting at any given moment for any given number of moments,  you could easily be forgiven for already having checked out.

Seasoned aficionados of DIY cinema are used to so-called “slow burns,” of course, and at least this one offers some very good performances to maintain a person’s interest — I was particularly fond (if that’s the word) of Rob Ceriello as the hair-trigger-tempered Sean, but Ricardo Manigat deserves a mention as “party-dude-with-a-pragmatic-streak” James, Lauren A. Kennedy makes more than the most of what by all rights should be a pretty goddamn rough slog of a role as Jesse, and Emma Barrett elevates her character of Sarah, who’s probably the most poorly-written of the bunch, to another, higher level by dint of her strong acting alone. The only player who comes up a bit short is Ryan Kramer as Will, but given that he’s doing double-duty as the film’s producer, my best guess is that a nominally “starring” turn was part of the package that came with him helping to hustle up funds, co-ordinate locations, etc. Props should also be extended to cinematographer John L. Murphy, who delivers one moody, atmospheric, and professional-looking shot after another despite having nothing but the most basic digital equipment at his disposal. So, yeah, whether we’re talking in front of the camera or behind it, the folks working on this one mostly all brought their “A” game.

Unfortunately, just when it looks like everyone’s patience — and, again, staying with this one requires a fair amount of that — is going to be rewarded, Raia trips over her own ending, serving up a less-than-satisfying reveal of who the murder is, a less-than-plausible explanation as to why he (whoops, minor spoiler there!) did it, and a less-than-rational series of 180-degree turns from otherwise-level-headed (at least by fright flick standards) characters. It’s very nearly a deal-breaker, I won’t kid you — but the preceding hour and fifteen minutes (or thereabouts) are so nicely-done, even at their slowest, that an admittedly forced and uninspired conclusion isn’t enough to tap out the reservoir of good will that the first-time director, her fine cast, and her flat-out terrific cinematographer have earned.

So, yeah, at the end of the day, maybe Summit doesn’t reach anything of the sort, but it looks like a lot more than the reported $20,000 production that it was, it showcases a lot of fine up-and-coming talent, and it suggests very strongly that they’re probably going to be capable of better as their various careers progress. I wish it would have delivered on all of its promise, absolutely, but the fact that it was even able to convince me, for most of its run-time, that it might do exactly that is a fairly solid achievement in and of itself.