Hell House is a found-footage horror trilogy about a paranormal tragedy that takes place at a haunted hotel, written and directed by Stephen Cognetti. The third film, HELL HOUSE LLC III: THE LAKE OF FIRE (you can read our review here) was released exclusively on Shudder and it brought back everything we loved from the first two films: a portal to hell, weird piano tunes and a creepy, creepy clown.
Hell House is an original found-footage trilogy with genuine surprises and scares and that’s not easy to do. I think the clown scare in the first film is going to be selected for a number of ‘25 of The Most Scariest Scenes in Horror’ lists in the future. The scares in many horror films come from brutality or gore but in Hell House, they’re imaginative and thoughtful. They get you at a deeper place because they’re subtle and yet, startling. The clown scare in Hell House LLC will creep you to the bone. DID THAT CLOWN MOVE, MAN? OR HAVE I GONE INSANE?
It’s hard to scare horror fans, we’ve seen it all. Exploding heads? Check. A doll that stabs you to death? Check. A cackling witch-person with black gloves who strangles you in boiling water? Check. Check. Check. But trust me, Hell House will scare you. That’s one gnarly clown. The Hell House trilogy is an inspiration to aspiring indie horror writers, directors and haunted event fans everywhere – so I was pretty excited to interview Cognetti, the mind behind it all.
I’m so excited to talk to you, I’m a huge fan of Hell House, you have no idea, it’s so good.
Stephen Cognetti: Oh yeah, that’s good to hear. I appreciate that.
One of my favorite films is The Beyond and I really like how the Hell House trilogy is like a new creative spin on haunted hotels. I’m so curious, how did you come up with the idea? Did you stay at hotels a lot or did you ever get scared by something at a hotel?
Stephen Cognetti: No, it wasn’t [because] of a hotel, the idea came from mostly just trying to create a mystery surrounding a Halloween haunted house tragedy.
One of my favorite things is watching Dateline Mysteries or 60 minutes episodes, you know, an investigative journalistic piece. On Dateline, if you have ever watched that on NBC, they’re usually investigating a homicide of some kind; so I thought: what if there was an investigation of something that happened, some kind of tragedy that was an actual paranormal event instead of your typical homicide shows. And the story evolved from there. And also, I love abandoned photography and abandoned buildings and so I combined the love of abandoned buildings with an investigative paranormal event piece, molded them together and that came to be the story of the Abaddon Hotel, the long abandoned Abaddon Hotel which Alex Taylor and his crew came upon in 2009.
I’m curious, do you see yourself in any of the characters? Is Alex based on you?
Stephen Cognetti: No, I don’t think so, I think Alex is…it’s a tough question, because I think there are some traits of Alex that came through. Especially I think, just being an indie filmmaker, trying to string together a budget, to put together a film in the first place, kind of puts me in the shoes of Alex. Just the pressure of making such a small budget film and getting it out there. Alex is trying to get Hell House done and get it seen again after the setbacks he’s had, so in that sense, maybe.
But other than that, when I was writing Alex, I just really wanted someone who was an enthusiast. I didn’t really know too much about the haunt world but when I started researching haunted house attractions – there is a whole community of Haunt people that I learned about and that’s so cool. They have conventions and there’s forums where people talk about their haunts. So, I kinda molded Alex to be one of those haunt enthusiasts and his favorite thing to do is to scare people.
And one of those little side notes, a nugget: the actual name Hell House is one thing that I didn’t take for myself, it’s one of my favorite horror novels, Richard Matheson’s Hell House from back, I think, in the 60’s. It’s one of Alex’s favorite horror novels as well, which is why he called his horror company – Hell House. It’s a limited liability company, LLC, based on that.
Were you always planning for Hell House to be a trilogy, or is that something that just naturally evolved?
Stephen Cognetti: The story was originally much bigger than what is in Hell House I and so I did, when I finished Hell House I, I realized, especially when I took it to the route of being a found footage film, there were a lot of the story elements that had to be cut out.
Because in found footage, you can’t justify cameras being in certain places and that’s why I couldn’t tell the full narrative that I wanted to in the original Hell House. And a lot of it being that the history of the original Abaddon hotel and things to come in the future, and lots of foreshadowing elements, and losing all those story elements when we committed to found footage. I said to myself: well, maybe I can revisit those lost story elements in another film or two, if I ever get the chance. More jokingly because I never thought I’d ever get the chance to do it, so the story was there. I never really thought it was going to happen but I’m just really happy that I was able to tell the full story and get it out there.
You mentioned Richard Matheson’s Hell House but what were some of your other favorite horror films and/or books?
Stephen Cognetti: Hands down it’s The Exorcist; it’s my favorite horror film by far. It still holds up and I think it’s the most amazing and terrifying horror film ever made. I love anything Stephen King, my favorite novel is The Stand. I even love all of his new stuff and I’m excited to see Doctor Sleep.
Yeah, I read Doctor Sleep and I’m pretty excited to see it. People say it’s really scary and they had to remove some scenes from it because it was too frightening.
Stephen Cognetti: I would think so, because it does deal with children and I think that’s disturbing in itself, for the audience to see bad things happening and you see that a lot – that happens a lot in the book. I’m assuming if they had to remove things, it might have to do with that. I remember that book is terrifying, Stephen King is still the king of horror.
I really liked The Exorcist as well. I think when Regan spins her head around it’s one of those scary moments that sticks in your brain and it’s absolutely terrifying. But I have to say that in Hell House, the husky clown with the black makeup around its eyes is similar, in that it is absolutely terrifying.
Stephen Cognetti: That’s because it is very subtle. I think that’s the approach we took because I wanted everything to be subtle, nothing over the top. Nothing jumping out of closets at you, chasing you. I think less is more with everything, if you’re gonna have a clown in your movie, it’s gotta be less is more. Meaning its features have to be dulled, it can’t just be exaggerated, it can’t be big nosed clowns with big wigs and horns. It’s got to be just the minimalist clowns, just a pale face with dark eyes. And we touched it up with a little bit of blood. I think that’s what made it creepier, it didn’t have exaggerated features, it was very, very minimal.
I think that’s a really good point. I remember in The Shining, there’s a point when Danny is in the hallway and he’s looking at the hoses and he keeps thinking that maybe the hose is flipped and it’s such a subtle thing to be scared by. I think that’s one thing I really loved about Hell House. That clown doesn’t chase you, it subtly moves its head and almost plays mind games with you a bit. You’re not quite sure if it actually moved or not. To me, I think that’s actually scarier.
Stephen Cognetti: I completely agree and that’s exactly what scares me too, it’s the subtleties in horror, it’s my favorite kind of scares – it’s not moving, but it’s in places where it shouldn’t have been.
The scare that lasted from the original script to the very end (because so much had changed from the first draft of Hell House to the very end) was when they wake up in the middle of the night and they look down and it’s standing at the bottom of the steps – the clown is just standing there and it’s not doing anything, but it’s there and it shouldn’t be there. The fact that it shouldn’t be there is what is terrifying. It’s not like it’s coming after us, it’s not doing anything. And then the slow walk down the stairs to move it, you never know if it is going to move.
It’s one of my favorite scares to film because I knew that was the one scare that hadn’t changed one bit since the original draft.
I love it so much because it’s so grounded in reality. I think it really mirrors our own experiences, where we’ve all lived in houses and apartments and may have had objects that have scared us. At the end of Hell House III, there was a suggestion that there might be a follow-up movie. Is there anything that you can tell us about that?
Stephen Cognetti: So, yeah, this goes into the whole background story of Hell House and the Abaddon Hotel in which there’s a lot more story to the Abaddon Hotel. So we only know from 2009 and on, that’s when Hell House arrives at the hotel to put on their Haunt. That’s really what I’d love to explore more. We have a script written, we have full things written out for it and ideas and we’ve explored the idea of possibly doing the history of the Abaddon Hotel.
I think that’s really exciting because I know horror fans are super excited about the background of this hotel and everything that has happened. I think because it’s found footage, it feels close to real and I was so curious about what the history was. What is happening in the Lake of Fire and stuff like that. I have one last question for you – you mentioned found-footage horror and you’re talking about some of the limitations in filming. I’m curious, if you do a next project, do you want to return to found-footage? Or do you want to do something outside of that?
Stephen Cognetti: I have two scrips unrelated to Hell House – they’re horror scripts that I’m dying to make and it’s going to be one or the other that’s coming up next. One of them is definitely narrative, I would love to shoot a traditional narrative not a found-footage horror film.
But it’s, you know, it’s all about budgeting and I wouldn’t want to do that narrative film unless I was able to do it right and you can do shoe-string budgets with found footage. You can’t do that with narrative film. I wouldn’t want to mess up the story (which I love) by not having enough budget to fully create it. If I don’t meet that budget goal, I’m probably going to do this other script, which is an original found footage story, which I too love as well. I think it’s a very new and interesting take on found-footage and it’s a very traditional haunted house story, but done very differently. I’d be excited to do either one. It all depends on where we are with the budget.
I love found footage, I love the sub-genre. Sometimes I’m frustrated by some of the feedback that people have about the whole genre in general because I think it’s such a freeing and creative genre. Outside of Hell House, what’s your favorite found footage film?
Stephen Cognetti: It’s definitely Lake Mungo. Lake Mungo was our early inspiration for Hell House. It was when I first realized that you can do the documentary style. What Lake Mungo did is something I’ve always wanted in found footage – to explain how we’re seeing the footage. It’s not just raw footage, it’s an actually edited, finished documentary. That’s what I wanted for Hell House too. And Lake Mungo did that so well. It was so subtly creepy and there was nothing over the top about it. It felt so real.
It’s a beautiful film.
Stephen Cognetti: Yeah, I love that film.
It’s very slow and real and grounded. Like we were saying before, I actually think it’s more terrifying in a way.
Stephen Cognetti: If you watch that film, you might actually think that it is a real documentary because they don’t seem like actors at all. They seem like a real family that this has happened too.
Right. It’s very sad. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me about Hell House. I’m really excited and everyone is raving about it on Twitter and online.
HELL HOUSE LLC III: THE LAKE OF FIRE is streaming exclusively on Shudder. If you don’t have access to Shudder yet, then here’s a 14-day free promo code: HELLHOUSELLC3. For more on Hell House, read our review here.
Although I’ve joked about wanting to see what’s happening in the Lake of Fire, I’m actually extremely curious about the history of Abaddon Hotel. I’m dying to know: How did the cult get started? What unspeakable things happened in the basement? Who is the snake-demon? How did he come to possess the former owner of the hotel? Did the hotel attract evil when it was first built, or did they commit Satanic rituals – to bring the eye of darkness to it? I NEED TO KNOW.
I’m already excited about the release of The Abaddon Tapes, the fourth film in the Hell House universe; but until then, check out HELL HOUSE LLC III: LAKE OF FIRE. If that burly clown doesn’t scare you for real, send me a message online and let’s talk about why you’re dead inside.