31 (More) Days of Fright: The Devil Rides Out

Extreme Makeover: Occult Observatory Edition.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film is the British black magic thrill-ride The Devil Rides Out (or The Devil’s Bride in the U.S.A.), directed by Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher (Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein). It’s not the easiest film to find, but I managed to find it on DailyMotion, of all places.

What happens:

A biplane lands in a field in England, and the pilot, Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene), clad in a three-piece suit, hops out to greet his old friend, Duc de Richleau (Chrisopher Lee), a dapper man with Lucifer-esque facial hair. Rex is expecting to see another friend, Simon, but Richleau informs him Simon hasn’t been around – he never visits the club and spends most of his time in his large, remote house. Impulsively, they decide to pay Simon a visit and make this reunion happen for real.

A servant beckons them enter the estate of Simon Aron (Patrick Mower), and they realize he’s having a little gathering: people of many different cultural backgrounds are enjoying a little cocktail party. Simon greets his old friends and explains they’ve walked into a meeting of his astronomical society. He introduces Richleau and Van Ryn to some of his new friends, like the Countess (Gwen Ffrangcon Davies) and Tanith Carlisle (Nike Arrighi), who Rex is sure he’s met before. They also meet Mocata (Charles Gray), the head of the society, who takes Simon aside for a chat. In the meantime, Richleau and Rex converse with Tanith and explain that they were friends of Simon’s father. Tanith seems confused as to why they’re present; it was her understanding that only 13 people were required. Of course, Simon returns to politely ask his old friends to leave.

Not only is this a Satanic party, but none of the fire exits are properly marked.

Richleau and Rex, however, take their time in departing – they have a smoke, sample the wine, and Richleau insists on seeing Simon’s telescope and observatory. The observatory floor is covered by a large star chart with a goat’s head painted in its centre. Then Richleau hears scratching. He throws open the closet and opens a hutch to reveal chickens: future sacrifices for some dark ceremony. Richleau is incensed and grabs young Simon by the lapels: “You fool! I’d rather you were dead than meddling with black magic!” Simon downplays the seriousness of it. But Richleau refuses to leave unless Simon goes with him. After much debate, Richleau decides to just clock his friend’s son, and our two heroes carry Simon out the front door. Simon’s butler attempts to stop them, but Duc de Richleau gives him more of the same medicine and they retreat to Richleau’s home.

Richleau rouses Simon from sleep and immediately hypnotizes him using a mirror. He instructs him to wear a symbol of protection (a good-old crucifix), fall asleep in his bedroom, and wake at 10 (very civilized!), free from anxiety. While Simon dozes, the other two men discuss what Simon’s got into. While Rex doesn’t believe in the powers of the Occult, Richleau assures him of the great power of the darkness. Meanwhile, Simon’s eyes pop wide open in bed. He begins to choke himself with the crucifix, then summons Richleau’s butler, Max (Keith Pyott) via an electric bell. Max later enters the drawing room with the crucifix, saying the boy was choking on it. Rex and Richleau race to the bedroom to find Simon has escaped.

The two men return to Simon’s house and sneak in through the ground-floor window. At first, they find the dark rooms deserted, so they ascend to the observatory. They turn on the lights and find the chickens remain unharmed. Richleau explains that Simon is about to be initiated into the “Left Hand Path,” and once he goes through the ceremony and is given an Occult name, his soul will be lost forever. The only way to get to him is through another member of the group. Rex believes he remembers seeing Ms. Carlisle from the casino, but Richleau warns she already has her Occult name – Tanith – and can’t be trusted.

Before long, the lights in the observatory dim and the temperature turns remarkably cold. The eyes of the goat head seal in the floor glow red and smoke billows from it. Suddenly, a figure appears atop the seal: a Black guy dressed in nothing but red shorts, just smiling. “Don’t look at the eyes,” Richleau warns. Eventually, he tosses a crucifix at the beach-ready man, who explodes in a puff of smoke. Richleau concludes that it must have been some sort of infernal being, raised by dark magic. They realize that the eve of May Day is coming up, which is the perfect date for the Satanists to initiate Simon into their dark coven. They must stop the ceremony, or Simon will be lost forever. And the only way they can find Simon is through the woman, Tanith Carlisle.

The Devil sends a shirtless Black man to intimidate our heroes. (Not a joke; this is what actually happens.)

After calling nearly every hotel in London, Richleau tracks down Ms. Carlisle. (They’re lucky she’s not a local.) Richleau instructs Rex to keep Tanith occupied – the ceremony requires 13 members, and if she’s absent, they won’t be able to initiate Simon – while he picks up some artifacts from the British Museum. Rex says he will drive Tanith to the country, and keep her at their mutual friends’, the Eatons. Somehow Rex convinces Tanith to get in a car with him (it is a nice car) and they drive into the countryside. Eventually Tanith gets wise to his scheme and says she needs to return to London. When he refuses to turn the car around, Tanith makes a leap for it, but Rex stops her. She tells Rex she’s afraid of what Mocata might do if she doesn’t show up. We learn that Tanith is her birth name (despite sounding sinister), and she, too, is to be initiated into the Left Hand Path with Simon this evening. Mocata speaks to her telepathically, via the rear-view mirror, and tells Tanith to trust in him.

Rex and Tanith arrive at the country home of the Eatons: Marie (Sarah Lawson), who is Richleau’s niece; Richard (Paul Eddington), her husband; and their child, Peggy (Rosalyn Landor). As soon as Rex exits the car to hug his friends, Tanith drives off. Rex takes Richard’s car and gives chase. Mocata again communicates with Tanith, reassuring her he has things under control. First he turns Rex’s windshield opaque, but Rex smashes a hole so he can see. Then Mocata generates a thick fog in the road. Rex runs into a tree, leaving Tanith free to escape.

Stranded on a country road, Rex attempts to flag down a passing motorist and is nearly run over by the Countess, barreling down the road. Rex chases after her on foot and watches as she arrives at a massive country home surrounded by gates topped with dragon statues. He hides in the front lot (where many cars have been parked) and watches as Mocata and dozens of others exit the house and enter their vehicles. He hides in the boot of the Countess’s car, and at the end of his destination, finds himself in a dark wooded area. Mocata and his disciples have changed into robes – none more garish than Mocata’s, a vivid purple and yellow. Only Simon and Tanith remain in their street clothes.

Hidden, Rex watches as Mocata lights a fire pit, then cuts a goat’s throat and collects its blood into a grail. The crowd goes bananas and a very clothed orgy begins. Rex finds a telephone box and calls Richleau. Richleau drives to the phone box immediately, handing Rex some salt and mercury from the museum, which are good in protection against the dark arts. When they arrive upon the scene, the PG orgy is in full effect, with both Tanith and Simon looking very awkward in its midst. Rex informs Richleau that Tanith is to be initiated tonight, so they should save them both. Richleau is all like, “We’ll do what we can.”

Then, the guest of honour arrives: a goat-headed man that Richleau identifies as “the Goat of Mendes, the Devil himself.” Everyone genuflects to the goat-man and Mocata directs him to the new recruits. Richleau realizes they must spring into action: the duo return to his car and drive into the crowd, blasting their headlights toward the Goat of Mendes. Rex, crouched on the side runners, hurls a crucifix at the goat-man and he explodes into smoke. Rex gathers the two initiates and they abandon the car, punching their way home through many angry Satanists.

Introducing the G.O.A.T.

They return to the Eatons, where Richleau provides instructions on caring for the recently rescued Simon and Tanith (who both seem relieved). Marie is to put Tanith to bed, and Rex is to watch over her and notify Richleau if anything whatsoever happens. (Literally the moment Marie leaves the room, Rex goes in for a kiss with Tanith – because he, like Rob Thomas and Santana, is so smooth – and is summarily rejected.) Richard is to do the same with Simon – not to leave his side for an instant. To prepare for the evening, the Eatons and the rescued young people are to have only water and minimal food. No alcohol at all. Richleau leaves for the city to pick up some talismans, but as soon as he does, Mocata pulls into the Eatons’ driveway, looking like a Satanic John Steed.

Marie Eaton reluctantly welcomes the Satanic leader into her drawing room. Mocata says he’s come to return Richleau’s motorcar, but he also needs to bring his friends Tanith and Simon back to London with him. Mocata insists that Duc de Richleau has been filling Marie’s head with lies: “In magic, there is neither good nor evil.” Instead, he explains, it’s all about the power of the will, kind of like how his will is overpowering Marie’s as he hypnotizes her. Once Marie is fully hypnotized, she reveals where the various other people are in the house. We then see Tanith wake from bed in a trance and approach the dozing Rex (sleeping on the job!). Simon, in the other bedroom, tosses and turns, so Richard checks to see if he’s okay. Suddenly, Simon begins to choke Richard, and Tanith pulls a decorative sword from the wall, ready to kill Rex. All is looking dire for our heroes when the little kid Peggy runs in and shouts for her mommy. The spell is broken and everyone snaps out of their trance.

Probably an ineffective wake-up call technique.

Mocata, having nearly just killed several people in her household, politely bids adieu to Marie and warns that while he personally won’t return this evening, something will. Marie immediately goes to check on everyone. Richard and Simon seem okay, but Rex is still asleep (come on!) and Tanith has gone missing. She rouses Rex from his slumber, and he rushes outside to find her. Tanith hasn’t got far, but she’s horrified she almost killed Rex. She tells Rex she can’t return to that house; she’s too much of a danger to the Eatons. Rex promises they’ll find somewhere else safe to hole up.

Duc de Richleau returns and is shocked by recent events – particularly that Rex and Tanith have left! Darkness falls and we see that Rex is hiding in a barn. He’s bound and blindfolded Tanith, who writhes in agony on a haystack, attempting to battle Mocata’s will. Richleau gets in a quick nap – rest is important – and gets to work, drawing a protective chalk circle in the main foyer and setting up various candles and pitchers of water. Back at the barn, Rex pulls off Tanith’s blindfold to check on her condition, and he finds that Mocata has won: Tanith is possessed. And soon she’s hypnotized Rex, too! He undoes her bonds, then falls asleep.

Richleau, Richard, Marie, and Simon lie in the protective circle, positioned in a cross. Richard is dubious that anything is happening, but Richleau snaps at him, saying his doubt is Mocata’s doing. Mocata knows that Richard is the weak link and is trying to break their wills. He appeals to Richard’s long friendship to stay with him. Simon, feeling dehydrated, drinks some of the water, and spits it out. He offers it to the others to demonstrate the taste, but Richleau warns them not to drink. (Another of Mocata’s tricks, no doubt!) The lights dim and the wind begins to howl. Our four heroes stand up and join hands.

Kind of like playing Red Rover with the forces of darkness.

First, there’s a knock at the door – a stranded visitor who needs to be let in. Marie goes for the door, but Richleau stops her. Then a giant spider (about the size of a dog) appears and crawls towards them; Richleau assures them it’s only an illusion. Marie and Richard’s child, Peggy, runs into the room and is threatened by the spider. Marie begins to panic. “It’s not Peggy,” Richleau insists, and splashes the girl with water. She disappears into smoke. Richard then throws the rest of the water pitcher at the large spider, and it melts like the Wicked Witch of the West. The will of all four is beginning to weaken after these constant attacks. Richard asks if there’s no way they can fight back, instead of always playing defence. Richleau says there are certain lines he can say, but only when all hope is lost.

Hope leaves town when the Angel of Death rides into the room on horseback. The horse rears up several times, unable to enter the circle, but Richleau warns if they catch sight of the Angel of Death’s face (currently covered by a visor), they will die. Seeing how bleak things are, Richleau chants his protective spell. The visor of the rider falls open, revealing his skull face, but Richleau is able to repel him. However, across the countryside, Tanith snaps out of her trance, then falls down dead. Once summoned, the Angel of Death cannot, Richleau Occult-splains, return empty-handed.

No horseplay in the front hallway allowed!

Light returns to the Eatons’ foyer, and everyone is relieved that their night of terror is over. But Rex arrives, carrying Tanith’s body: they did not escape the attacks unscathed. And she’s not the only casualty. When Marie checks on her daughter, she finds her butler has been beaten and the Satanists have kidnapped Peggy. While the crew is reckoning with this turn of events, Simon rashly hops in a car and drives off on his own. The others, however, have no idea where the Satanists might have taken her.

Richleau uses some white magic, calling on angels and using salt, hair, and blood to possess Marie with the spirit of the dead Tanith. Tanith, speaking through Mrs. Eaton, is compelled to remember her love for Rex and tell them where they might find Mocata. However, the spirit of Tanith is only able to see a “winged serpent” before the forces of darkness block her vision. Initially stymied, Rex remembers the statues outside the country estate where he first encountered the Satanic cult. Now it’s on.

Simon, meanwhile, has arrived at that cult house and walks into a massive room where the robed disciples chant and Mocata stands, in his purple robes, at an altar where the sleeping Peggy has been placed. Simon offers to trade his soul for that of the child, but the evil Mocata suggests he can have both their souls. Simon takes the ceremonial dagger with which they intend to sacrifice the child and tries to stab the Satanic leader, but Mocata hypnotizes him to stop and become docile.

Our four proper British heroes arrive on the scene just as the cult begins to call on Egyptian god Set. Marie screams at seeing her child about to be sacrificed. Rex rushes in and is subdued by several followers. Mocata then reveals his plan: trade the child Peggy’s soul for Tanith’s. (He’s very interested in Tanith’s soul – I guess he thinks they’re soulmates.) Richard then freaks out and is beaten down just as surely as Rex.) Marie begs Richleau to cast his fancy spell again, but he won’t.

Unorthodox for a DJ set, but I appreciate the theatrics.

Mocata is just about to cut into Peggy when Marie, possessed by the spirit of Tanith, speaks and instructs Peggy to stand up. She has Peggy repeat after her the recitation of a spell, which causes lightning to strike the altar and flames to engulf the room. The followers flee and Mocata is overtaken by flames. All that’s left in the room after the conflagration is a massive cross on the far wall (which I guess was just hidden under some heavy curtains).

Everyone awakes in the protective circle in the Eatons’ front room. Simon and Richleau realize Tanith’s body, which had been placed on a bench, is gone. But then they see Rex and Tanith outside, both completely healthy. “Time itself has been reversed for us,” Richleau (sort of) explains. The Angel of Death must have taken Mocata in place of Tanith. The group then gives a sincere thanks to the Christian God for their Divine salvation, and the end credits roll.

Tanith has fallen asleep, succumbed to all of Richleau’s long explanations of Occult ritual.

Takeaway points:

  • The film capitalizes on the Satanic panic of the 1960s, and uses the work of one of the best authors to dabble in that realm: Dennis Wheatley, who wrote many thrillers, only some of which featured the Occult. What amazes me is how much Richleau knows about Satanic rituals and black magic, but no one ever asks how he knows this arcane information. He can identify the Goat of Mendes, knows various incantations, spells, supernatural rules, and protections – but his confused friends never wonder how this guy became an expert in the dark arts. I suppose it’s a case of “know thy enemy” – one must study black magic to be able to protect oneself against it – but I would personally be more wary of the guy who is a walking Occult encyclopaedia and looks like Christopher Lee in Satan cosplay.
  • Charles Gray is fittingly polite as Lucifer’s emissary on earth. Many cultural depictions feature the Devil as not some angry, violent figure, but an exceedingly polite one who does not have your best interests at heart. Mocata exemplifies that, acting a perfect English gentleman who is nonetheless plotting to deliver your souls to the Devil. The drawing room scene when he converses with Marie, almost to the point of obsequiousness, is a show-stopper.
  • As emblematic as The Devil Rides Out is of the Satanic panic of the late 1960s, it’s also indicative of the white colonialism that in some small way inspired it and still runs rampant through western society. After all, the Christian God is shown to be the one true light in this film, the only thing that can combat the forces of darkness. Tanith’s name is suspect, as it derives from a North African (Phoenician god). And when do we see characters of colour appear in this movie? When Richleau and Rex first arrive at Simon’s house, the party features a number of African and Asian guests. Before even realizing what’s going on, Rex is horrified. He knows something’s afoot, given this blatant miscegenation. Likewise, as soon as Richleau discovers chickens in a hutch, Simon’s guilt is assured. Forget that many world religions use animal sacrifice: this is evidence of the devil! Literally, a demon is depicted as a Black man in red shorts – no makeup, no goat horns! The Devil Rides Out is a fun movie, but lest we forget it’s also suffering a bit of a colonialist hangover with its innate fear of all things not white or Christian.
  • The Devil Rides Out is known as The Devil’s Bride in the United States, where it was thought the original title would confuse people expecting to watch a Western. And, to be fair, when I told people I had watched The Devil Rides Out, they thought I was talking about a Western.
  • From now on, I’m just going to carry a bunch of crucifixes with me at all times. If anything weird shows up, I’ll just hurl a crucifix in its direction like a ninja star. If it’s demonic, it should explode in a puff of smoke.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: I regret to inform you that The Devil Rides Out is neither terrible nor particularly scary. The film is interesting, particularly since it seems to be fairly researched with actual Occult folklore, but much of the scary stuff we’re told about, instead of actually witnessing. Though it was neat to see Christopher Lee play a hero, for once.

“Sorry to bother you, chap, but would happen to have any Grey Poupon?”

Best outfit: The devil knows how to dress: check Mocata biting John Steed’s style and tell me he’s not the best-dressed man in this film.

Best line: “I’d rather see you dead than meddling with black magic.” – Duc de Richleau, concerned father figure.

Best kill: Death, despite showing up on horseback, doesn’t figure largely in The Devil Rides Out. Mocata is the only person who dies during the course of the film, and we’re only told it happens. So, the best kill goes to that sacrificial goat.

Unexpected cameo: If you think you’ve seen Charles Gray, the antagonist known as Mocata, before, you’re probably right. He’s the criminologist from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And TV fans will know Paul Eddington, who plays Richard Eaton, as the star of Yes, Minister.

Unexpected lesson learned: Think twice before using swords as bedroom decor.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Echo Babylon, with their debut album, Slaughter of the Black Cockerel and the White Hen.

Next up: The House at the End of Time (2014).

31 (More) Days of Fright: Hell House LLC

The horrors of local news programming.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film is a recommendation by friend and author Pasha Malla, the excellently titled Hell House LLC, a found-footage film from 2015 directed by Stephen Cognetti. I watched it on the Shudder streaming service.

What happens:

Trigger warnings: Suicide, sexual harassment.

The premise of Hell House LLC is a fictional documentary about a 2009 tragedy at a haunted house attraction in Abbadon, New York, in which 15 people died under mysterious circumstances. As talking head Robert Lyons (Theodore Bouloukos) explains, “Hell House was a real tragedy on many levels.” (Mainly just the one level, though: all the deaths.) The documentary, produced by Diane Graves (Alice Bahlke) informs us that on October 8, 2009, an old hotel that had been refurbished for Halloween amusement purposes became the site of tragedy, then they run a YouTube video that emerged following the attraction’s closure, shot by one of the surviving tour-goers.

A young couple tapes their experience in the haunted house, and it starts out with the usual shocks: spooky skulls and strobe lights. Then a man in a clown costume races by in a panic, and he’s later followed by a woman wearing civilian clothes. This doesn’t seem like something that’s supposed to happen. Once they reach the final stop on the haunted house tour – the basement – they encounter a logjam. People are screaming more than usual – actual terror! – and the crowd, packed in the basement like sardines, struggles to free themselves. Everyone rushes out as fast as possible; we see tables and carts topple in the rush to escape.

This only publicly available video of the night’s events is paired with a 911 call that was recorded from within the haunted house: a woman gasping about something on the wall. The official cause of the 15 victims’ deaths is “severe malfunction” (whatever that means). But the documentary crew then speaks to journalist Martin Cliver (Jeb Kreager), who controversially snuck into the hotel after the incident and snapped some photographs. The photos revealed dried blood on the floor, which doesn’t jive with the generally accepted theory of a gas leak. But even Cliver doesn’t venture into the basement; too scared, he takes his photos from the top of the stairs.

Enter Sara Havel (Ryan Jennifer Jones), who was part of the Hell House company that sets up haunted house attractions in the New York area every Halloween. She meets with Diane Graves for an interview and warns that if people knew what really happened in the old hotel, they wouldn’t accept it. She then gifts Diane and the crew a bagful of VHS tapes, a record of everything they saw and witnessed while setting up the house. When Diane asks why these tapes weren’t submitted to the police, Sara ominously says, “You’ll see.”

Ideally, your documentary subject will look like they’re being interrogated by police. (Directors: take note.)

The remainder of the film is mostly comprised of these Handicam recordings made by Paul O’Keefe (Gore Abrams), a moustached member of the Hell House company whose interests seem limited to women and different ways to sexually harass them. The tapes begin in the drive to Abaddon, which we’re told is about a 40-minute drive from New York City. The white frat-like crew consists of the aforementioned Paul and Sara, but also Sarah’s boyfriend and founder of the company, Alex Taylor (Danny Bellini); his lifelong friend Andrew “Mac” McNamara (Adam Schneider); and Paul’s buddy, Tony Prescott (Jared Hacker). They soon arrive at the vacant Abaddon Hotel and realize most of their set dressing has been done for them already: the hotel is creepy as hell!

Our heroes scope out the inside of the long-condemned hotel: it’s in disarray. The roof leaks, the electricity (obviously) is out, and tables in the dining room have been overturned. “It smells like a sweater,” Sara notes. They find a shattered plate with an illustration that bears a passing resemblance to Sara. One other thing: though the company doesn’t notice at the time, we viewers see a black hooded figure in the background. The creepiest part of the old hotel is the basement, which already has disturbing wall art. Alex’s plan is to chain a paid actor to the wall as some sort of fake virgin sacrifice, and feature a number of clown mannequins (including one actor) along the far wall. They notice a ton of discarded old books on the floor – all of which happen to be Bibles. “It’s a hotel,” Alex reasons. “There are Bibles in every room.”

Paul and Tony get the electricity up and running within two weeks, and the members of the crew begin to live in the hotel. That’s when, Sara suggests, “things began to change.” Tony sets up security cameras throughout the house, but he can’t get them to function in the basement. This is a serious security issue – especially if they have an actress in a state of undress chained to a wall down there. Between creepy comments, the boys decide they’ll hire a really beefy actor to portray one of the clowns in the basement, and he can double as security.

Paul records himself, confession-cam-style, late at night, complaining, in the most unpleasant way possible, about how #thirsty he is. Spookily, we see a figure moving around in the dark behind him, but when Paul calls out and asks if it’s Sara or one of his other friends sleepwalking, there’s no answer. Paul next peeps on Alex and Sara in their underpants before announcing the hired actors have arrived. The camera zooms in on one actor in particular, Melissa (Lauren A. Kennedy), who will portray the “damsel in distress” chained to the wall. (Need I remind you that Paul is a sex pervert with no boundaries.) However, the documentary breaks to interview the journalist, Cliver. He spoke to one police officer who said the first body he found was a member of the Hell House crew with a self-inflicted throat wound. Additionally, Joey Steffler (Phil Hess), the beefy actor stationed in the basement, made it out of the house alive, but refused to talk to police and killed himself nine days later.

Her LinkedIn profile suggested she’d be perfect for being chained up in their creepy basement.

Alex goes over the role with Melissa, and Melissa informs him of rumours about the hotel. That the original owner hanged himself and guests kept going missing. Paul, behind the camera, does about eight things that could get him fired for sexual harassment, but we then move on to our talking heads, who tell us the history of the hotel. Andrew Tully allegedly built the hotel in Abaddon because the name of the town reminded him of a demon who guards the gateway to hell. But some time after opening, a mother and daughter vanished, having last been seen at the hotel. Though nothing could be tied conclusively to the hotel, business suffered and Tully hanged himself in the dining room. (We even see a file photo.)

Back in 2009, our team sets up the creepy clown mannequins in the basement but are frustrated that the mannequin heads are immobile. They begin to hear strange noises at night and hang out a bit with Joey, their clown actor who they “discovered” at a local gas station. He can pop out his eye on command. (Gross!) While Paul and Mac are in the hotel alone, Tony goes missing. Paul searches him out. He finds Tony, in the clown garb, staring into the basement. The clown slowly turns to him. When Paul goes to tell Mac he found Tony acting strangely, there Tony is (looking conspicuously not like a clown). Paul loses it, flipping out that someone else in a clown suit must have broken into the house. He shows the others the video evidence, but they think he’s played some sort of camera trick on him.

The gang films a commercial for their haunted house in the hotel’s yard and Sara drifts away to stare eerily at a statue of the Virgin Mary. Stranger things continue to happen: during a dry run of the haunted house tour, Paul sees “creeps” through the strobe lights that don’t match the models they placed there. There are supernatural forces at work in the house. Paul begins to actively freak out, but Alex pressures him to calm down. The attraction is two weeks away from opening night, and he doesn’t want Paul to scare the actors.

Arguably a creepier clown than Pennywise.

That night, Paul is awakened by a terrible noise. When he leaves his room, he sees the super-scary clown on the stairs. Paul summons Mac, who – braver than Paul (or I) – approaches the clown and confirms it’s just a mannequin. Someone was messing with them. But Sara, however, is standing in the other room, Blair-Witch-style against the wall and speaking in backwards tongues. Paul and Mac rouse her from her trance and she begins to panic. When they turn back to the stairs, the clown mannequin has vanished! Then the clock strikes in the dining room. When they take a look, a candelabra has been lit at the dining table. Everyone panics and runs upstairs, past the clown mannequin (now holding a lantern).

Paul returns to the confession cam with three days to go. He notes that Sara is not looking good, though “she usually does.” When he wakes up that night, there’s a woman slumped against his bedroom wall. She stirs and slowly moves toward Paul, who hides himself under his blanket like a three-year-old. When he peeks out from behind the covers, she’s suddenly very close. Paul screams.

Paul discovers hostel living can be affordable but has definite drawbacks.

Tony is the next person to turn on the camera. He and the others are looking for Paul, as he’s gone missing just days before opening. Mac, however, is unconcerned: Paul has flaked out on them in previous years and can’t be relied upon. Tony asks Alex to try calling Paul’s cell phone and all they hear is a squeal of angry white noise. In the evening, they are awakened by the sound of the piano downstairs. Assuming Paul has returned, they descend the stairs, but can find no sign of him. The sounds however, seem to have moved to the basement, so they continue downward. The basement, naturally, is pitch black, lit only by their flashlights. When Tony trains his light on the clown mannequins, he sees all their heads have turned. But their heads were supposed to be immobile! He screams and pushes Mac and himself into a locked room to hide. When they extract themselves, the clowns are back in their normal positions, but Paul has appeared. He’s lying slumped against the basement wall. And while they determine he’s alive, he’s not nearly as jovial as he usually is. (The first warning sign is he’s stopped being a total lech.)

By this point, Tony is convinced that they need to scuttle the whole haunted house idea. Too many scary and inexplicable things have been happening; Paul is back but is not himself. When Alex refuses to shut things down, Tony threatens to quit and storms out of the hotel. Mac chases him down and says he needs to tell him something. The tape omits what that “something” is, but it convinces Tony to stay on. Some secret that only Mac and Alex know has tethered him to the project. Tony is resigned to the fact that this haunted house has to happen; he can’t leave now.

The documentary producer, Diana, asks Sara if Alex was of “sound mind” going into opening night. Sara says he was, but the tape shows him on opening night wearing a T-shirt and vest, so just how sane was he? In fact, he’s not his usual confident self when giving a pre-game pep talk to the costumed actors and is visibly shaken. Mac, who has taken over camera duties, goes to check on Paul, and he’s lying unresponsive in bed. But in good news, they have a large opening-night crowd, eager to get into Hell House. The team adds the final touches to the house, which concludes with Mac tearing open the shackled Melissa’s dress in the basement. (Why they didn’t just have costuming for this already is anyone’s guess.)

“Overture! Curtain, lights! This is it, we’ll hit the heights …”

The team’s walkie-talkies begin to malfunction, so Tony and Alex, in the control room, have no way of speaking to everyone else. Sara runs into Mac, who’s hidden behind a lattice to oversee the night’s festivities. She notifies him that Joey, in his clown suit, just blew past her on his way out of the hotel. They hear intense screaming from the basement – nothing they planned was quite that scary – so Mac asks her to find Alex. Meanwhile in the basement, something is very much amiss. A few black hooded figures that look essentially like Dementors from Harry Potter, have arrived to menace the crowd and the chained-up Melissa. The audience intuitively senses this is not part of the show and pandemonium erupts.

Mac guides as many guests as possible out of the house, but finds himself locked in immediately after. He and Sara run around the house in a panic, finally making their way up the stairs to the attic, where Alex has hanged himself. Mac tries to pull his friend down, but the imposing Dementors arrive and swarm him. The camera falls to the ground.

Diana asks Sara what happened after that, and she says she left the attic and went downstairs. The police arrived soon after. The interviewer is dubious she could just waltz out, but Sara asks to be excused. Sara leaves, encouraging them to look in the Abaddon Hotel themselves. She will be in Room 2C at her own hotel if they need to reach her again. The camera crew makes a hasty decision to break into the site of the crimes at 5 in the morning. Before they go, they try to leave a message at Sara’s hotel, but find there’s no ‘2C’ nor ‘Sara Havel’ at the hotel.

Crew member Mitchell is left behind to catalogue further footage that Diana really should have watched before leaving. In the new footage, we see Sara leaves the attic and finds Paul on the ground floor. Paul, looking intense and distraught, begins to punch Sara a few times, and we next see her on the ground, beaten and bloodied. She is then dragged out of view and the camera records Paul from the knees down. He picks up a shard of broken glass and cuts his throat, which we realize has happened once his dead body drops into the picture frame.

But it’s a bit too late: Diane and her cameraman have entered the hotel and spotted the path of dried blood that marks where Sara was dragged. Diane is gleeful to spot a bloody handprint in the basement, but the cameraman isn’t so excited. He refuses to enter the basement. Mitchell tries to call Diane on her cell phone to warn her of what he saw, but she won’t answer. They head upstairs and see one of the bedrooms marked ‘2C.’ (It’s honestly the most chilling thing.) Though the cameraman doesn’t want to, Diane insists they enter. They see Sarah, seated on a mattress on the floor. Diane asks if Sarah is okay. She slowly turns, revealing a face that is partially rotted away. Diane and her camera guy begin to yell, and the mysterious hooded figures in black approach.

Mothers, don’t let your daughters grow up to date haunted house CEOs.

Takeaway points:

  • Though it did not concern this film, my sometime horror film companion David Demchuk asked an astute question: “When do characters realize they are in a horror film?” So often, the answer is never. The characters in Hell House LLC never do, which I suppose is why they persist in sleeping in the haunted hotel (despite having videotape evidence of something demonic), why they seem unfazed by the fact that Paul has become an entirely different person after mysteriously disappearing. Likewise, the reporters who are making a documentary literally about how the hotel is the site of many recent, inexplicable deaths – who zoom in on mysterious figures in raw footage – decide it’s a good idea to enter the house again, to check out the basement. It’s like they haven’t been involved in the very movie they are purportedly making. Obviously, characters in horror movies are going to do dumb things sometimes, but disbelief can only be suspended so far.
  • Hell House LLC answers the question that no one really asked: what if a bunch of bros bought a haunted hotel? The entire Hell House team are unpleasant to spend time with, as they relentlessly creep on women, joke about topless actors, and act like extras in an early Blink-182 video. Even in the depths of his utmost terror, Paul (ringleader of the sexual harassment circus) still manages to skeeve out on Sara. My wife remarked, partway through, “I hate every one of these people.” (We were in a bit of a hurry to watch them die.) It’s unclear if the characterization is meant to depict the real dynamics of a bunch of privileged white guys who grew up together and decided they wanted to spend a lifetime scaring folks, or just the side effect of making film that has similar human resource issues.
  • Once again, we see the forces of unfettered capitalism are to blame for supernatural doom. From Poltergeist to Aliens, the profit impulse is what causes so many people in horror movies to die grisly deaths. Though we’re not informed of the reason Tony decides to stay in the company when thoroughly spooked, from numerous hints, we can assume Hell House LLC is close to financial ruin. So in this case, it’s not even individual greed that drives them to death – rather an effort to not see friends bankrupted. In late-stage capitalism, even personal friendships will be abused by the company. Horror seems primed to turn the current wave of tech “disruptors” into new horror premises, though my wise wife informs me that’s essentially the idea behind Black Mirror.
  • Though the town of Abaddon is completely fictional, the hotel seems loosely based on the very haunted Shanley Hotel, in Ulster County, New York. Built in 1895, the hotel was the site of many accidental deaths and said to be one of the most haunted spots in the tri-state area. Among the phenomena on tap at the Shanley: chiming of clocks, footsteps, objects moving, ghost cats, piano music and more. (You can currently stay in the Shanley Hotel, if your nerves can handle it and you’re over 16 years of age.)
Just catching a breather in the Insane Clown Posse chill-out tent.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: If you watch Hell House LLC, I have no doubt you’ll be scared. There are chilling moments. For me, the initial encounter with a clown was terribly unsettling. And merely the discovery of a Room ‘2C’ in the hotel gives me chills just thinking about it. There are scares to be had, but it’s a bit of a one-trick pony. It’s like a haunted house itself. Scares you in the moment, but there’s nothing particularly thoughtful behind those scares.

Best outfit: As with most found footage movies, fashion is not its strong point. The commitment to realism means the characters are not stylish, because most real people aren’t stylish. This is especially so in Hell House LLC, where it’s a lot of basketball shorts and Teva sandals. I liked Sara’s Pac-Man shirt, though.

Best line: “Tully considered himself a modern-day Dante.” – interview subject Robert Lyons, clearly confused about the Satanic powers of Italy’s epic poet.

Best kill: Most of the film, I wanted Paul dead, so I guess Paul slashing his own throat with a piece of broken glass was pretty satisfying.

Unexpected cameo: Unless you’re a die-hard indie film aficionado, you likely won’t recognize any of our actors from another place. (Such is the terrible fate of found-footage actors, cherished for their non-celebrity.) But Jeb Kreager who plays the reporter talking head, has been getting a fair amount of work, including a role as Gunner Henderson the new Punisher Netflix series.

Unexpected lesson learned: Never date the CEO of a company specializing in haunted house experiences.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Abaddon Hotel.

Next up: The Devil Rides Out (1968).