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Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor review
group of vloggers investigate a remote manor where a massacre occurred in 1989.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Stephen Cognetti

Starring: Bridget Rose Perrotta, Destiny Leilani Brown, James Liddell, Gideon Berger

Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor poster

Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor is the fourth instalment of writer/director Stephen Cognetti's Hell House LLC series. The first three films dealt with the spooky goings-on at the Abbadon Hotel in rural New York. All four movies adopt a found footage aesthetic with the first film detailing the deaths of a group of people who attempted to set up a haunted house attraction at the Abbadon. The sequel sees a team of journalists terrorised as they investigate the events of the previous film. In the third movie, disaster strikes when an entrepreneur decides to stage an immersive theatre experience at the Abbadon.

Serving as both a prequel and a "sidequel" to the original trilogy, this fourth movie moves the action away from the Abbadon to a nearby mansion, the Carmichael manor. in 1989 the manor was the scene of a double and possibly triple homicide when two members of the Carmichael family were brutally slaughtered and a third disappeared.

Cognetti presents his film in the guise of a true crime documentary. Talking heads discuss the backstory of the Carmichaels and introduce us to the footage that makes up the bulk of the film, shot by three amateur "net sleuths" who spent five terrifying nights at the manor hoping to find evidence of its rumoured haunting.

Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor review

The trio consists of the forceful Margot (Bridget Rose Perrotta), a paranormal obsessive who dreams of capturing supernatural shenanigans on camera; her girlfriend Rebecca (Destiny Leilani Brown), who at this point is growing tired of accompanying Margot on her misadventures; and Margot's mentally troubled brother Chase (James Liddell).

Cognetti initially has fun with the modern phenomenon of ghosthunters who know they're probably not going to catch anything beyond wind noises and creaking doors on camera. In a spin on the classic horror trope of the gas station attendant who warns our heroes against heading to the woods/manor/abandoned asylum etc, we see a fast food clerk beam with excitement at the idea of Margot and her friends staying at the Carmichael. Nobody really expects to find anything spooky at the manor. Boy are they wrong.

At this point the concept of found footage horror has grown so stale it seems like an outdated and redundant technique. Yet Cognetti somehow manages to make it feel fresh and innovative here. Cognetti doesn't offer anything we haven't seen before, but you get the impression he's studied found footage movies and made notes on what does and doesn't work with the format. A regular complaint of such movies is that the footage looks too slick and staged, especially those that came from mainstream Hollywood in the wake of Paranormal Activity's surprise success. Cognetti purposely avoids this by putting two cameras in the hands of amateurs in the case of Rebecca and Chase. Tension and suspense are often generated by the duo's inability to keep a shot in focus or to pay attention to what's on their screens.

Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor review

Cognetti keeps his scares simple, playing on well established primal fears. Much of the terror comes from two clown mannequins (or is it three?) locked away in a room upstairs. This preys on two classic fears: the almost universal fear of clowns and the always creepy idea of trying to figure out if an inanimate object has moved. There's a deeply unsettling shot where a character pans their camera around one of the mannequins. The still figure's head appears to move, but it's unclear whether it's actually physically moving or if it's an effect like moving a camera across the canvas of the Mona Lisa and seeing her eyes appear to follow the lens. Elsewhere terror is generated by such simple devices as unexplained shadows, cloaked and masked figures, and in a spin on the ball that menaces George C. Scott in The Changeling, a red clown's nose that keeps appearing where it shouldn't be.

Along with the trio's footage we're treated to the horrors documented on a reel of film shot by one of the Carmichaels in the weeks leading up to the murder. While it would likely make more sense for 1989 footage to have been shot on VHS, there's something far more unsettling about grainy 8mm and the muffled audio that accompanies the images. This backstory ties in with the other movies in the series, but you don't need to have seen them for The Carmichael Manor to work.

Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor review

Cognetti also makes great use of the true crime doc trope of promising more unsettling developments to come after a commercial break. His film is broken down into the five nights and marked by one of the talking heads telling us that if we thought things were scary already, wait till you see what happens on the next night. It's a mark of Cognetti's confidence at this point that his film never fails to live up to these boasts; each successive night genuinely is scarier than the previous, and they're pretty damn creepy to begin with. From the off, Cognetti lights a bonfire of terror and stokes it by continually adding more nightmare fuel.

As someone who has been watching horror movies since I was far too young to do so, at this point the genre largely serves as comforting escapism. It's very rare for me to be able to say I was honestly unnerved by a horror film, and I don't believe horror even needs to be scary to work, as the genre is about far more than that. But watching The Carmichael Manor at home alone on a stormy night with the wind whistling down my chimney and the front door creaking, well, congrats got me.

Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor is on Shudder from October 30th.

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