Director: Stephen Cognetti
Writer: Stephen Cognetti
Producer: Joe Bandelli
Stars: Gabriel T. Chytry, Elizabeth Vermilyea, Sam Kazzi, Scott Richey, Brian David Tracy, Theodore Bouloukos, Duane Cooper, Leo DeFriend, Bridgid Abrams, Jordan Kaplan, Olivia Roldan
A TV reporter uncovers an unexpected story when a mysterious entrepreneur uses the reportedly haunted Abaddon Hotel as the site of his new immersive theater production.
Review scores aren’t as comparatively relative to each other as some might think. If they were, I suppose I’d have to rate “Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire” with a 40/100.
I was tough on the first “Hell House LLC” (review here), only awarding it a 45. That doesn’t mean I didn’t find the movie without merit. In particular, I admired the finale’s effective sense of trampling panic. This third chapter isn’t as adept at capturing claustrophobia on camera. As a penalty for not being as eerie or as engrossing, “Lake of Fire” would have to rank lower.
“Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel” (review here) took an unanticipated turn for the worse from the first film. Its choppy editing felt careless. Its confounding fiction felt like it wasn’t fully thought through. By virtue of being more tightly focused both technically and narratively than this predecessor, “Lake of Fire” would thus deserve to score higher than “The Abaddon Hotel’s” undesirable 35.
Instead of meeting in the middle at 40, 50/100 seems more objectively appropriate for “Hell House LLC III.” I obviously wasn’t a fan of the first two films, so it’s not shocking that I won’t be joining the cheerleading squad for this third chapter either. But “Lake of Fire” doesn’t have to appeal to me. “Hell House LLC” garnered a devoted fan following, even though many agreed “The Abaddon Hotel” took a dip in quality. Therefore, 50 isn’t an indicator that “Lake of Fire” is qualitatively “better” than its predecessors. It’s merely a concession that “Hell House LLC III” remains consistent with the series’ style and storyline, so viewers are likely to land on the same side of the 50/50 line that they fell the first two times around.
Despite the original Hell House haunt crew dying there in 2009 and an investigative journalism team going missing in 2017, people can’t stay away from New York’s supposedly cursed Abaddon Hotel. Russell Wynn, a wealthy media entrepreneur conspicuously mentioned yet never seen in “Hell House LLC II,” saved the site from a deserved bulldozing. Now the paranormal property is set up to host Wynn’s new immersive theater production “Insomnia.”
“Morning Mysteries,” a local news show that also appeared in the previous film, has been invited to tape behind the scenes as cast and crew prepare for opening night. In a vacuum, I might not think much of Elizabeth Vermilyea as on-camera host Vanessa Shepherd. Thinking back to the poor performance of her predecessor however, Vermilyea is marginally more believable as a field anchor, although she clearly isn’t a reporter for her day job. Compared to the alternately campy or cringey performances all over “Hell House LLC II,” “Lake of Fire” at least trades up to a cast that is acceptably inconsistent, which is preferable to being predominantly awful.
Acting still reads as amateur on multiple occasions, but there are more tolerable hits than there are total misses. Sam Kazzi as Russell Wynn’s right-hand man moves with the authority of a project manager truly focused on getting sh*t done without being an unlikable prick about it. Scott Richey gets in good, albeit spare, licks of comic relief as animated production designer Harvey. Speaking to both the mystery and the misery of putting together a play in a haunted hotel, Harvey quips, “this has been the least enjoyable production I’ve worked on, and I have done children’s theater in Alabama.”
Conversely, it’s not a surprise that Gabriel Chytry, who plays Russell Wynn, has “Hell House LLC III” listed as his only released feature credit on IMDb. Wynn plays “Lake of Fire’s” most critical role roster-wise, yet filmmakers cast someone out of his depth to play an enigmatic millionaire man of leisure. I might buy Chytry as an indie art gallery owner at best. As a peer to Richard Branson or Jeff Bezos ? Chytry doesn’t have the charisma to manufacture similar mystique, or the acting experience to fake it.
While it is more competently put together than its immediate predecessor, “Lake of Fire” fumbles with a few questionable techniques too. “Hell House LLC III’s” camerawork isn’t as slapdash as “Hell House LLC II’s,” although there are errant frame-ups such as a foreground light bulb getting in the way of one character’s face and other noticeable gaffes like that. Remember, the pretense is that we are watching the *third* documentary about The Abaddon Hotel. Yet the movie still uses pixilated garble to transition between footage from the first two films, never mind the illusion of supposedly being a professional-grade production.
I’ve only viewed “Hell House LLC” and “Hell House LLC II” once each in their respective release years of 2016 and 2018. I imagine watching all three in a single sitting would be a challenge of stamina no matter how patient the viewer. All three films are similar in terms of using two-thirds of their runtimes to gradually build toward a frenetic climax. By the time we arrive at “Lake of Fire,” sticking to this played-out formula results in regressive routine that’s difficult to find compelling.
“Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel” left off with an unusually bonkers conclusion that took the first film’s grounding in quasi-normalcy and shredded it with inter-dimensional occultism, paranormal possession, and cryptic conspiracies. On its surface, dialing “Lake of Fire” back to be more in line with I than II in terms of far-out fantasy makes sense, especially since many reacted unfavorably to “The Abaddon Hotel’s” acceleration into unrealistic insanity. Then again, starting “Lake of Fire’s” scares with a creepy clown turning his head or a shape standing still in the shadows no longer packs the punch “Hell House LLC” has been preparing its long-term followers for.
Put simply, “Hell House LLC III” becomes a victim of its restrictive DNA. “Lake of Fire” is the third film founded on identical concepts of a theater troupe and camera crew setting up shop in the same haunted hotel only to be casually creeped out for an hour until a fiery finale. “Lake of Fire” feels the fatigue of having every drop drained from this well. I’m incapable of picturing what a fourth film would even look like given how trampled this ground has become. Seeing as how “Hell House LLC II” hinted at this sequel’s direction by name-dropping Russell Wynn, creator Stephen Cognetti could instead be setting up a prequel with this movie’s meaningless mention of a nearby fairgrounds tragedy predating the deaths at Hell House.
Review Score: 50