Interview: Writer/Director Stephen Cognetti Talks HELL HOUSE LLC III: LAKE OF FIRE and Creating Effective Scares
Hell House LLC (2015) was writer/director Stephen Cognetti’s first feature film and it is veritably scary. It tells the story of a group of friends who open a haunted house called Hell House inside the Abaddon Hotel, an abandoned hotel that was rumored to have a gateway to hell in its basement. Hell House abruptly ends in tragedy on opening night. It’s one of my favorite found footage films and I’ve watched it every Halloween since it came out. We now have a trilogy with Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire, which is streaming on Shudder. The third film pays another visit to the Abaddon Hotel nine years after the disaster which caused the members of Hell House to meet their fate.
In Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire, entrepreneur Russell Wynn is bringing his immersive experience Insomnia to the Abaddon Hotel. He invites journalist Vanessa Shepherd to film a documentary that includes behind-the-scenes of the production as well as opening night. When Vanessa begins to experience strange things while filming rehearsals, she starts to suspect there is a connection between Russell Wynn and Hell House. A quick investigation confirms her suspicions and puts her in danger in a way that could potentially change her life forever or even send her to hell. I highly recommend you watch Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire on Shudder to find out what happens! If you don’t have Shudder, you can sign up for a 14-day Free Trial by using the code HELLHOUSELLC3.
Ghastly Grinning recently had the pleasure of chatting with Stephen Cognetti about Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire, making the trilogy, creating great scares, and a lot more. Read on to find out what we talked about!
Ghastly Grinning: Hell House LLC was your first feature film and it’s an incredibly well done found footage film that features genuine scares. How did you come up with the concept of a haunted attraction located inside a haunted hotel and why did you decide to make it found footage style?
Stephen Cognetti: One of my investors asked me if I wanted to do a movie about a haunted house gone wrong, like a slasher film, because he’s into slashers. I said, “I love the idea of a haunted house gone wrong, so I’m going to write something, but it’s not going to be a slasher." I don’t like slashers; I like paranormal horror. The first draft of the script, I didn’t like too much; it was a narrative. I realized I wasn’t going to have much of a budget either, so what I did was I combined two things that I love the most; which was abandoned buildings, I love abandoned photography; and I also love things like Dateline or murder mystery documentaries. So, I said, “What if there was a Dateline, but instead of a murder, there was a paranormal event that happened and they’re investigating it?” That’s how the script kind of transformed into a mockumentary style narrative that combines two things I like; a murder mystery documentary and abandoned buildings. The whole idea of Hell House coming upon an abandoned building and turning it into something for themselves had to be worked into the script.
One thing I stressed to everyone going into the script was that I love found footage, but the thing that’s always missing is that we’re just presented with raw footage and we’re never told how it’s presented to us and how we’re seeing it. So, what I wanted to do was present an edited documentary of found footage, something that we’re told how it came to us, how it was put together, who put it together, and how we’re seeing it. That’s what I wanted to do with Hell House LLC, I wanted to explain that angle that I think is missing from found footage movies.
GG: Did you visit any haunted attractions for ideas, and when did you decide that this would become a franchise?
Cognetti: I did. I visited some local to where I was. At the time, I was living in New York City. I also checked out things on Youtube and I did anything I could. I didn’t know the haunt community at all, but it is a very big community of the people who make haunts. That’s something I learned from going on forums and chatrooms with people talking about building their haunts. I started asking questions and sending emails. I was kind of building the character of Alex Taylor from Hell House LLC as someone who is one of these haunt enthusiasts, people who build haunts. And from there, we were trying to figure out how we were going to find a location to shoot in. That was the biggest hurdle we were going to have once the script was done.
As far as the franchise goes, I always wanted to make more of the story. I didn’t like the original draft of Hell House LLC, because it was a narrative draft, but a lot of the story elements survived. There’s so much story, that when you switch from narrative to found footage, you cut out so much story. You have to justify cameras in found footage, like why is there a camera filming, and if I can’t justify why there’s a camera filming this part of the story, I have to lose that part of the story altogether. With a narrative, you can go anywhere, you can go back in time if you want to. So, I cut out a lot of the story and I jokingly said to friends, “Well, maybe I’ll just put it into the trilogy.” And I remember at the time it was a joke. Hell House LLC started gaining a little bit of popularity, so I thought, “Well, maybe I should take those story elements from the first story and just finish the story.” And that’s what I did. Hell House LLC II and III were always there. They were cut ideas from the original script or they were just larger storylines and I just applied them to the next two films to flesh out more of the original story than was already there.
GG: I have to ask about that clown because I’m terrified of it, and I don’t even have a fear of clowns. Where did you get the idea for the clown and why did you want him to be in all three movies?
Cognetti: Clowns don’t scare me either because I think that they’re too much. They’re too busy, there’s too much going on with the big noses and all that. Every day on set, I would say to people, “Subtlety is everything, less is more.” And that applies to the clown, too. The clown was going to be a staple of the attraction, part of one of their sets. I wanted it very basic, just a very basic pale white face, the dark eyes, and then some blood coming down, no exaggerated features, nothing over the top. The more minimum you go with it, I think, the creepier it is. We had some designs made by an artist and I sent that to Angie Moyer, who is our production designer and the person who owns the haunt we filmed in. She got together all the costumes and she found the perfect mask and then our makeup artist dressed that up a bit more, adding a little bit more black around the mouth, a little blood from the eyes, and then from there it came together. I think the best thing about the clown is that it’s subtle. I think that’s why it’s creepy.
The whole thing about the latter movies and the whole thing about abandoned photography that I love, is that if you go into a place that’s abandoned, what was there when it was abandoned is still going to be there. That’s the whole thing about Hell House LLC II and we explore it a little bit more in Hell House LLC III, is that nobody went in there and took out all the props and everything after the Hell House disaster in 2009. They’re all still there, so anyone who goes in there will see The Abaddon Hotel as it was opening night of Hell House.
GG: In all three films, the scares seem very simple, but they’re so effective. These movies are scary! Can you tell me about the creative process for inventing the scares and how you masterfully maintain the feeling of anxiety throughout each film?
Cognetti: Well, thank you. I’m happy that you appreciate the scares. I was hoping that people would like the scares and I just made the kinds of scares that I like, when there’s subtlety there. Less is more. I always tell people the thing I like most about the Halloween movies is when we see Michael Myers walking in the background, not being chased or anything, just a subtle thing out of the corner of your eye. Those are my favorite kinds of scares. The one scene, the staple of Hell House, the scene that survived and was untouched from the first time I wrote the script to the final draft that we shot with, was the scene where they wake up in the middle of the night and the clown is standing at the bottom of the steps. Out of nowhere it’s just standing there. It’s not doing anything, it’s not like they heard anything, it’s a simple clown standing at the bottom of the steps. It doesn’t sound like there’s much to it, but putting yourself in that situation would be terrifying, I think. And then, slowly walking down the stairs toward it, they have to move it.
The fact that they have to walk on the stairs to the clown, that shouldn’t be there, but it is, is the kind of scare that I love. It’s doing nothing, but it scares us (laughs). So, I always try to build scares like that, that are very subtle, nothing over the top. It’s a very subtle sense of dread and creepiness and I tried to do that for all three movies. Sometimes we hit it and sometimes we don’t, but we try to keep that vibe through all three. I just know what scares me and when people started reacting positively to Hell House LLC, I was like, “Oh, there’s other people that like that kind of scare, too.” Great. There’s a lot of other people that appreciate subtlety in horror, so that got me excited, so that’s why I wanted to try to write more scares like that and keep it on that vibe.
GG: In Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire, Russell Wynn is bringing his interactive production of Faust, called “Insomnia,” to the Abaddon Hotel and he may or may not know about the gateway to hell that is supposed to be located there. What was your inspiration for Hell House LLC III and more specifically, how did you develop Russell Wynn’s character and backstory?
Cognetti: When I wrote Hell House LLC, I knew the storyline of Hell House LLC III, in terms of the Abaddon Hotel was going to have its grand finale in a big event that was going to settle everything, but I didn’t really think of Wynn. Wynn came when I was writing Hell House LLC II. I see the whole trilogy as one movie in three acts, so Hell House LLC II was fueling the big climax. In Hell House LLC II, Russell Wynn is mentioned by a few people and the events that come in Hell House LLC III are mentioned by Andrew Tully. I like the contradictions of Russell Wynn and Alex Taylor. They’re two very different people that kind of came down the same road to the Abaddon Hotel in different ways. Alex had a small company and was trying to stay afloat in a haunted house attraction company and struggling to get by. He was very poor and lost everything and was using the Abaddon Hotel to try to hang on. Russell Wynn is very wealthy and famous. He has everything and he, tool went to the Abaddon Hotel, for different reasons. So, I just kind of like the contrast of two people at the front end of the movie and at the back end of the movie and how they’re similar, but different, but going down the same path. It kind of just evolved from there. If you remember, there’s that one line in Hell House LLC III when Vanessa is talking about the comparisons between Alex and Russell and she’s acknowledging that if you compare these two there’s a lot of similarities in what they were doing, but they end and they are dissimilar in many ways, too, and she acknowledges that.
GG: I like the fact that Russell Wynn has the scar running down one side of his face. It adds such an ominous feeling to the scenes he’s in.
Cognetti: Yeah, his backstory is that he was in a car accident in, I think it was 2007, and it was a year or two before Hell House opened its doors. The scar is from the accident and that’s something that lingers through in his character. The accident ends up having a lot more meaning to the story and to him, and to the Abaddon Hotel, and towards the end we figure it out. It’s very subtle. I remember when I sent out earlier versions of the script, a lot of people said they get where it was going, but it might be too subtle, and some people might not understand what’s going on. I wrote in some more specific things that kind of highlight Russell’s purpose and how the car crash relates to everything, but I still wanted to keep it as vague as I could, so it would be somewhat of a mystery and you would have to piece things together. It’s the same thing with Hell House LLC, you kind of have to go back to certain pieces of dialogue to figure out the clues. I didn’t want to overstate anything with Russell and the mystery behind him.
You can find Michelle’s full review of Hell House LLC III here!