[Review] 'Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor' is a Terrifying Return to Basics for the Franchise
Back in 2016, writer/director Stephen Cognetti screamed onto the scene with his terrifying found footage horror film, Hell House LLC. Like the infamous house collecting souls, the film grew its fan base over time, evolving into a trilogy rich with lore and scares. Now, Cognetti has returned to the franchise for the fourth time with Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor. The good news? It’s just as frightening as the others. The bad news? It’s just as frightening as the others.
This time around, Cognetti takes audiences away from the Abaddon Hotel—though not too far—and into the Carmichael Manor. It’s at this remote abode that in October of 1989, the Carmichael family was brutally murdered. Two of the bodies were never found. Flash-forward to the present day, and we find internet sleuth Margot (Bridget Rose Perrotta) on her way to the manor. Accompanied by girlfriend, Rebecca (Destiny Leilani Brown) and brother, Chase (James Liddell), Margot and co. intend on staying at the Manor for a few nights with hopes of uncovering clues to the murder mystery. What does the Abaddon have to do with the manor? Sadly for Margot’s group, they’re about to find out.
Fans of the series will instantly feel at home in Carmichael Manor. Once again presented in a documentary style splicing together Margot’s footage, talking heads discussing what happened to her, and grainy videos from the past, there’s a realness to Origins that makes it that much more unsettling. This has been the case with the entire Hell House series, and a key ingredient from chef Cognetti that has made each one of these films so effective.
Found footage works best when it feels as if the protagonists aren’t actors, but actual, genuine people, something that Cognetti has (mostly) been effective at achieving throughout this series. Origins is no exception. Perrotta, Brown and Liddell all deliver performances that come off as natural, lending further credence to the terror of the events. All three nail their roles, but Brown is especially effective in displaying a fear that pops off the screen and into the hearts of the viewers. One moment in particular has Brown wake up to Margot asking her if she “heard that,” and the look of “not again” on her face says it all. It’s the same look the viewer has at a certain point, that apprehensive knowledge that we’re about to be scared right out of our skin.
Through four films, Cognetti has had time to master his craft, and his growth as a horror director is on full display throughout Origins in a back to basics approach more focused on atmospheric scares than intricate plot. The mundane production design of the manor isn’t quite as eerie as anything at Hell House, though the wide-open halls make for a good dose of liminal dread. Things start slow with your more traditional spookiness—a door creak here, a ball rolling there—but it isn’t long before the film explodes into relentless horror, filled to the brim with well-crafted and clever scares. There’s a zoom call moment that I’d argue is scarier than anything you saw in Host (another great haunter). In fact, you could even argue that the horror is a little too effective. That’s because the chilling encounters that Margot and the others experience happen so quickly and so intensely, that it’s difficult to buy into them staying one more second in the house. In the previous films, characters were either trapped or lied to about what was happening, with financial prospects on the line. Here, Margot has nothing to lose by leaving other than satisfying her own curiosity. You could play a drinking game with how often someone says “we should leave”, only to do the frustrating opposite.
But then, these movies have always been about the downfall of obsession, haven’t they? The obsession with success. With mystery. With death. Like Margot and her internet fans, we as the audience are sleuthers. We’re obsessed with the mystery as well. It’s why we watch. The twists of Origins probably won’t surprise those of you paying close attention, but they do make for plenty of re-watch value. Cognetti sprinkles clues throughout that’ll have some pausing again and again to catch them all.
As an “origin” story, I can’t say that Origins is all that illuminating, so audiences should check expectations when entering the Carmichael Manor. Per usual, the film offers more questions than answers. We do, however, learn a lot more about those damn clowns, and that’s the exciting part. Four films in, Cognetti knows his audience and what works, which is all the clown carnage we can handle. The trio of clown mannequins have become the face of the Hell House franchise, and they’re front and center here. Coulrophobics beware, you’re in for one hell of a scare.
The repetitive nature of Origins and characters so dumb it hurts strains the believability of the film at times, but it’s still a masterclass of terror. Tense. Creepy. Disturbing. Cognetti assures you won’t soon forget your stay at the Carmichael Manor. Luckily for fans, evil never dies, and the latest entry in the Hell House saga hints that there’s still plenty of horror to come.
Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor arrives on Shudder October 30th...just in time for Halloween.