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).

31 (More) Days of Fright: Noroi: The Curse

Using a map scribbled by a distraught psychic: extreme psychogeography.

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 was selected by my very own sadistic brother, Andrew Munday. The film is Japanese found footage creep-fest, Noroi: The Curse (2005) by director Koji Shiraishi (Grotesque). I made use of my free month-long trial of horror streaming service, Shudder, which has exclusive streaming rights to Noroi: The Curse.

What happens:

Trigger warnings: suicide, abortion.

Gird your loins, friends, because we’re about to delve into the first film yet in this marathon to give me some serious chills. Noroi can be (and often is) compared positively to The Blair Witch Project. Like that earlier film, it, too, professes to be a documentary deemed too disturbing to be viewed by the general public.

Masafumi Kobayashi (Jin Muraki) is a journalist of the weird and unknown. He produces a series of VHS releases that look like a Japanese version of Unsolved Mysteries. In April 2004, after finishing a new VHS documentary, The Curse, his house burned to the ground, killing his wife. Kobayashi himself was never found. The distributors of his tape series now present his last project, The Curse, which opens with a quotation from Kobayashi himself: “I want the truth, no matter how terrifying.”

The documentary starts in Tokyo, November 2002, as Kobayashi interviews a woman who claims to hear eerie baby voices from the house next door. But there’s no baby next door; just a middle-aged woman and a boy who looks about eight. Naturally, Kobayashi tries to interview the neighbour next, but the haunted-looking woman answers the door and verbally attacks our host: “How can you talk to me this way!” The interview proves impossible. When Kobayashi plays back the videotape, he can hear the strange sounds. He takes the film to Suzuki (Hajime Suzuki), an audiologist, who determines it to be the voices of five simultaneous baby cries.

A few weeks later, the neighbour, Mikako Okui (Mikako Okui) informs Kobayashi that the neighbours left, and – with them – the weird baby noises. Kobayashi snoops around the now-vacant home and discovers the woman’s name is Junko Ishii, and the yard is mysteriously littered with dead pigeons. Days later, Ms. Okui and her daughter die; they lose control of their car and drive into oncoming traffic.

The film switches gears with an excerpt of a variety program in which Hiroshi the Psychic (Hiroshi Aramata) runs a battery of tests for ESP on ten young hopefuls. One child, Kana Yano (Rio Kanno) shows an uncanny ability, recreating a hidden drawing nine times out of ten. (The tenth time, she draws a creepy mask, which doesn’t match the drawing at all.) Miraculously, Kana also is able to telekinetically produce water in an empty jar – but that’s not all she produces. The water also contains some plankton and the hair of a newborn baby (!). (In North America, we call that Vitamin Water.)

Not enough ESP-based reality shows in North America.

Catching wind of this psychic girl, Kobayashi interviews Kana Yano’s parents. They note their daughter has been listless since the TV taping, though doctors find nothing wrong with her. The documentary then cuts to clip from a Ghost Hunters show, in which our hosts, The Un-Girls (Angâruzu), bring actress Marika Matsumoto (playing herself) to a supposedly haunted shrine. Marika claims to have a bit of the sixth sense. Her sense leads the trio to a spot marked by two dead trees, then she hears the low sound of a man’s voice. (The hosts do not hear this voice.) Marika turns to face something unseen, then collapses onto her back, screaming in a panic.

The camera pulls back, showing that this clip was part of a live stage event, “True Horror Stories,” in which the actress Marika is being interviewed about her experience in front of a crowd. Marika claims to remember nothing after she heard the voice. The event organizers have invited a special guest, super-psychic Mitsuo Hori (Satoru Jitsunashi), to meet Marika. Hori wears a tinfoil hat, tinfoil jacket, and exhibits many of the ticks and behaviours of people with severe autism. When they introduce Hori to Marika he leaps across the stage to attack her, and begins to rant about pigeons.

Our in-film host, Kobayashi, then interviews the director of the Un-Girls ghost-hunting program. He shows Kobayashi something unsettling in the unedited footage, but it’s left a mystery to viewers for the moment. Kobayashi later interviews Marika, who has started unconsciously drawing strange patterns of loops. He shows her the unedited video and pauses at the moment that startled the producer. In the distance, between two trees, you can see the distinct ghostly shape of a child. (Creep city!)

The documentary returns to the psychic child, Kana, who has started talking to herself when no one is around and making doom-laden predictions. Over dinner one night, Kana drops her spoon. The bowls and plates all slide off the table as she screams. During another variety show, an actress visits our outsider psychic, Mitsuo Hori, at his home. His garage is covered in strange written messages. Invited inside, the actress discovers the walls and surfaces are covered in aluminum foil as well as Hori’s strange fliers that warn of of ectoplasmic worms.

Don’t look on the far right of this image, or you will get a very unpleasant surprise.

On December 22, Kana Yano goes missing. When Kobayashi interviews the worried parents, they note that a man in a tin foil hat started recently visiting their daughter. Kana herself told her parents the man was no threat, but she was literally an eleven-year-old girl. They show Kobayashi a flier they found in her bedroom – one warning about ectoplasmic worms and covered in strange loopy patterns. Given the evidence, Kobayashi confronts Hori at his home. It isn’t long before the psychic begins to weep openly and claim the ectoplasmic worms got her. But then, he’s struck by a premonition. He takes a sheet of blank paper and begins to sketch manically, shouting out descriptive words: “blue building, galvanized iron sheets.” He’s drawing Kana’s location! He then gestures in a direction for Kobayashi to begin his search, and stops cold. “What’s Kagutaba?” he asks, panicking. He continues to scream about “Kagutaba” as the video image breaks and is interrupted by inexplicable images of small masks.

Armed with their highly interpretive map, Kobayashi and his crew try to find a blue building. The search is cut short when the actress Marika calls him. She has been unconsciously tying yarn into very complex loops, and doesn’t know why. Kobayashi sets up a camera to document Marika’s sleep, Paranormal Activity-style. When they review the tape the next day, they hear a strange banging, and see that Marika went sleepwalking on the balcony. When they investigate the balcony, they find similarly complicated loops of yarn. They ask Marika’s upstairs neighbour, another actress, Midori Kimino (Mana Okada), if she’s heard any banging in the night. She hasn’t heard a thing.

By January, Kobayashi believes he’s found the building in Hori’s drawing; it looks nearly identical. He visits the apartment in question and can hear someone (or something) inside, but no one answers the door. So Kobyashi inquires with a neighbour who says the occupant, Shinichi Osawa (Takashi Kakizawa) is in his mid-twenties, lives alone. He’s never seen Osawa with a young girl before. Kobayashi returns again later, and they see his verandah is the only one that has attracted pigeons. That’s when the camera spots Osawa as he steps out onto the balcony, grabs a pigeon in his bare hand (gross!), and returns inside. (Strikingly, the other pigeons seem unfazed.) A few days later – you guessed it – Osawa goes missing.

Audio expert Suzuki analyzes the strange bumping sound on the Marika sleepwalking tape. When they isolate it, it seems to be a low voice saying an unusual word, “kagutaba.” It’s a word Kobayashi has only ever heard said by Mitsuo Hori, and a word that now fills me with dread. Kobayashi plays the isolated sound for Marika. She identifies it as similar to the voice she heard at the shrine, but she has no idea what the word means. Kobayashi goes to his rolodex of linguists and tries to define “kagutaba.” Eventually, he strikes gold with Professor Kazuhide Shiyoa (playing himself), who believes it comes from an old Shimokaga Village near Nagano, where the superstitious villagers used to hold a ritual to pacify a demon. The name of that demon? Patrick. (Just kidding. It’s Kagutaba) That’s when Kobayashi realizes his story may necessitate a trip to the other side of Japan.

Near Nagano, Kobayashi meets with a local historian, Toshinori Tanimura (also as himself), who describes a regular demon ritual that was held in a nearby town until 1978. After that, the valley was flooded to create a dam. Luckily, Tanimura just so happens to have a film strip of the final such demon ritual. The priest, a Mr. Ishii confronts a woman portraying the demon (with fright mask and all) Kagutaba. He bows and claps in a particular way to appease the demon, but once the ritual ends, the woman falls to the ground, shrieking as a woman possessed. Kobayashi demands to speak with the priest, but he’s dead. The woman in the film was his daughter, and supposedly lives in a nearby town. That woman’s name: Junko Ishii, the weird neighbour from the beginning of this film!

Kobayashi drives to the village community near Nagano. Houses are marked with a sickle above the threshold of their doorways, and everyone owns a dog – all old ways of the sorcerers who used to comprise the flooded village. When Kobayashi gets to Junko’s house, he finds an overwhelming quantity of looped yarn, and the now-familiar drawn patterns all over the outer walls of her building. In a reprise of the film’s opening, Junko Ishii (Tomono Kuga) again attacks the filmmakers when they approach. Neighbours warn Kobayashi to steer clear of her. An old friend of Junko’s claims she started acting strange after the last Kagutaba ritual.

Forget the lambada. This is the true forbidden dance.

To pursue a lead from Junko Ishii’s past, Kobayashi speaks with the nursing school she studied at, and the abortion clinic where she worked. They note Junko was very reserved, and only spoke about work; never about her personal life. Her former colleague notes the clinic where they worked performed “illegally late-stage” abortions, and Junko was the person in charge of disposing of the embryos. Apropos of nothing, she tells him a rumour that Junko supposedly took some of the embryos home. That’s when Marika calls Kobayashi with tragic news: Midori, her upstairs neighbour, has hanged herself. And not only that: she hanged herself with six other total strangers in a public park. One of the other suicide victims: none other than Shinichi Osawa (the pigeon-grabber himself).

Masafumi Kobayashi and his wife, Keiko (Miyoko Hanai), decide to take in a frazzled Marika. Shortly thereafter, Kobayashi learns that Osawa often fought with the other neighbour, a middle-aged woman, about the baby cries that emanated from her apartment. And shortly after that, Kana Yano’s father stabs his wife to death and turns himself in to police. Back at the Kobayashi homestead, Marika makes a fancy lunch for Keiko (“spaghetti bongole (?) with potato salad”), but Keiko is alarmed when her houseguest falls into a trance and begins to moan like an old man. Moments later, a number of pigeons crash into the sliding glass door window and Marika recovers.

On a very special Kobayashi …

Given the series of events so far, Marika is understandably spooked and fears that she’ll be the next person to die. Kobayashi takes Marika to see Mitsuo Hori. They play the tape of Junko Ishii for him and he flies into an apoplectic fit. Marika sees only one possible solution that could save her: to travel to the Shikami Dam and try to recreate the demon ritual. Kobayashi first refuses – that’s a terrible idea – but eventually relents. And they bring Mitsuo Hori along with them, because why not?

The trio grab a cameraman make the long drive to Shikami Dam. As the former village is now underwater, Kobayashi and Marika must row into the middle of the reservoir before she can do the ritual bowing and claps. Following the ceremony, she feels better – stronger. But back on shore, Mitsuo Hori begs to differ. He is flipping out, demanding they paddle back. He insists they drive off the mountain and go home, but moments after runs deep into the woods, shouting “Kana, Kana!” Kobayashi grabs a camera and follows him, while the cameraman and Marika return to the car and drive back as night quickly descends.

Marika, obviously, is not actually better. She falls asleep in the rear of the car and soon begins to moan. When the cameraman stops the car, she makes a run for it, eventually looking up to the sky, falling, and screaming as if attacked. Mitsuo Hori, meanwhile, has led Kobayashi deep into the dark woods, where they begin to find dead dogs in every direction. Eventually they find a roped-in perimeter, piled high with dead animals, and an ancient shrine. The forest goes completely dark, and Hori screams more frantically than ever. In the camera’s night-vision mode, you can see grainy footage of what looks like a woman or girl, covered with wriggling babies. Moments later, it’s gone, and – on the other side of the mountain – Marika snaps out of her episode.

Apologies for the future nightmares.

Kobayashi and his cameraman bring both Hori and Marika to a hospital, but return to Junko Ishii’s house. Like a Japanese Fox Mulder or Geraldo, Kobayashi breaks into Ishii’s house when there’s no answer – the truth is in there! – only to discover refuse and dead pigeons everywhere. Most disturbing of all, he finds Junko Ishii’s body hanging from a noose. But that’s not all. When they step further into the room, they find a shrine of sorts piled high with Kagutaba masks, dead pigeons, and looped yarn. And behind an altar: Ishii’s young boy crouched over the dead body of Kana Yano.

We learn that the boy, thought to be Junko Ishii’s son, was not related to him. The Kobayashis adopt the traumatized boy, who barely speaks. We later learn that Marika returns to her work on television, but Hori, unfortunately, has been institutionalized and is allowed no visitors. That’s when the historian, Tanimura, calls Kobayashi again. All the Kagutaba reminiscing led him to go through his old stuff, and he found a tapestry in his grandfather’s collection. The fabric outlines the ritual to summon Kagutaba: villagers sacrificed baby monkeys and offered them as food to a medium (a psychic like Kana Yano). That’s when Kobayashi makes a horrifying revelation: that’s how Junko Ishii must have been using Kana Yano – to summon Kagutaba. Kana Yano was that girl, briefly glimpsed, covered in writhing infants. But now she’s dead, right?

That’s where Kobayashi’s film ends. But the film about the film isn’t done with. As mentioned, the Kobayashis’ house burned down shortly after the video was finished, with Keiko dying in the fire, and Masafumi vanishing. Mitsuo Hori, we are informed, later escaped his institution and was found dead in an apartment’s air duct. One month after the fire, the Sugishobou Video Publishing company receive a mysterious package from Masafumi Kobayashi: a video camera with a cassette tape still inside. The company plays the tape and – guys – it’s just the worst, scariest thing.

If you thought the girl crawling with babies was unsettling, wait until you see Noroi’s hideous but bravura final long take. The tape shows the Kobayashis awakened by an escaped (and agitated) Mitsuo Hori. Dressed in a robe and holding a rock, he claims “Kagutaba lives!” He sees the child they’ve adopted and threatens him with a rock. “Kagutaba!” Kobayashi, like any good Offspring fan, keeps them separated, but Hori overpowers him and bashes the boy’s head in with a rock. The camera turns away from the bludgeoning, but it turns back to even worse horror. A docile Hori now stands behind the child, who is standing upright and stock still, his head crushed and bleeding. Keiko falls into a trance and begins to moan. Hori walks up to Kobayashi (holding the camera) and smacks him with the rock, then leaves with the eerie child. Immediately after, Keiko goes to the kitchen, douses herself in gasoline, and lights a match.

She’s no Mr. Roeper or Wilson, that’s for sure.

Takeaway points:

  • I’d be willing to rank Noroi: The Curse as the scariest film I’ve yet watched this January. Found-footage horror can be a real mixed bag, but Noroi is exceptional for a few principal reasons. For one, in much the same way Unsolved Mysteries creeped out television viewers, this film doesn’t rely on jump-scares or hidden images. Though there are some particularly memorable scenes, it’s more that every moment of this film is unsettling from frame one. And two, it feels like a documentary film – it’s not just grainy footage, but a package put together of clips from live events, faithfully recreated segments from variety shows and reality TV. The pieces assemble to make what seems, in many ways, like the real deal. And, finally Noroi makes great use of the long take. I’ve already said enough about how effectively disturbing the long final shot is – it’s a moment you truly wish you could un-see – but there are a number of other scenes that become creepier the longer they go without an edit.
  • The flooding of a traditional Japanese village to make way for a dam serves as the catalyst for the return of Kagutaba, which makes Noroi a gentle (though terrifying) screed against the prioritization of development and modernity over the old ways. Of course, the old ways in this film seem pretty spooky themselves. But at least pre-1978, the only things that were harmed were baby monkeys and dogs.
  • And what are we to make of the film’s epigraph? Kobayashi wants the truth, no matter how horrifying. In addition to the message that modernization may unleash unforeseen monsters, Noroi also suggests that an obsessive quest for the truth will only lead to madness. This is a common theme in horror literature and film, but rarely so vivid and horrifying as it’s depicted in the movie’s final scene.
  • The setting of Nagano is interesting. I didn’t know much about the city or region, outside of its renown as a site of the Winter Olympics (just around the corner!). The Nagano depicted in Noroi looks a lot like one of many northern Canadian towns: somewhat remote, dogs tied up outdoors, amenities and wealth in short supply.
  • Among the many confusing plot threads is the lingering one about the illegal late-stage abortion clinic, and the nefarious Junko Ishii’s possible theft fetal matter, which she (maybe?) feeds it to Kana Yano. (I was confused.) I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Are the filmmakers implicating abortion in the demonic evil of Kagutaba? And if so … what?!
  • Relatedly, so many of the events (and deaths) in this movie are instigated by a neighbour complaining about crying babies. But, like, who complains to their neighbour about a crying baby? It’s a baby. That’s what it does: cries. It’s not like they have a neighbour who blasts dubstep at three in the morning. Sure, the woman didn’t live with a baby, so there’s that. But all those homeowners and tenants could just as easily have moved in beside new parents. Buy some ear plugs and grit your teeth through the baby sounds and you’ll avoid being murdered by Kagutaba. Seems simple enough to me.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: If you don’t like being scared, do not watch Noroi: The Curse. That is one unsettling film. I’ve given myself goosebumps several times just summarizing the plot. And that final scene should give me nightmares for weeks. The plot doesn’t entirely make sense, and it’s probably about a half-hour too long (and too complicated), but it’s honestly quite scary. This is one creepy movie.

He’s just a psychic dirtbag, baby.

Best outfit: For the distinctive and bold choice of using aluminum foil to create a look that’s half silver street performer and half lead singer from Wheatus, we salute you, Mitsuo Hori.

Best line: “I guess it’s too late for all of us.” – Kana Yano, answering an innocuous question, but also encapsulating the current zeitgeist

Best kill: Kobayashi’s wife Keiko setting herself on fire is the only death we see on screen, but it’s a doozy. It’s magical, the things stunt people can do with fire these days.

Unexpected cameo: Half the actors and actresses are playing themselves in Noroi. Not being overly familiar with Japanese film and television, I couldn’t tell if these mysterious IMDb credits were an attempt by the filmmakers to further mystify the film’s production and give the documentary credibility as “real,” or if the movie is like a found-footage horror version of The Trip films, with actors playing heightened versions of themselves.

Unexpected lesson learned: Despite the taste-makers, you can pair pasta with a side dish of potato salad.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Is there a more metal band name than Kagutaba?

Next up: Event Horizon (1997).