Interview: ‘Hell House LLC’ Trilogy Writer/Director Stephen Cognetti
By Empress Eve
Monday, September 23rd, 2019 at 2:00 pm
A few years ago scrolling through the horror selections on Prime Video I found the movie Hell House LLC and it seemed intriguing enough to throw in my watchlist. There it stayed until my friend Chris (FutureBoyReviews on Facebook) told me to give it a watch. I’m an unabashed fan of found-footage horror and this was right up my alley. The movie was great, filled with genuine scares, and some of the creepiest clowns you’ll ever see. Last year, writer/director Stephen Cognetti returned with Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel, a worthy sequel that explored the backstory of the haunted attraction. On September 19, 2019, Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire debuted on AMC’s horror streaming service, Shudder, to much fanfare. (You can check out my full review of the film here.) On the day of the third film’s premiere, I got the chance to speak with Stephen Cognetti about the Hell House LLC trilogy, found-footage, his inspirations, and more. Read the interview here below.
Geeks of Doom: First off, congratulations! Today is a big day with Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire premiering on Shudder. I started my review of the film by talking about those two words, “Shudder Exclusive” and what they’re beginning to mean in the horror industry. As your new film debuts on the service, what does it mean for you as a filmmaker to be partnered with a streaming service like Shudder?
Stephen Cognetti: Yeah, that’s a great question because I think as far as the horror community, we all know how awesome Shudder is and how much we need Shudder. It’s just the perfect thing for fans of horror, myself included and that’s long before Hell House. Before we partnered with them for Hell House I was a fan, so it’s very surreal now to see Hell House on the channel and to know people are enjoying the film. This is the third one out now, and it’s getting some good reviews, so that’s good. But knowing that we’re partnered with Shudder, which is my favorite streaming service as a horror fan, it’s just an awesome feeling.
Geeks of Doom: I remember when Shudder debuted and I felt I like was in this exclusive club of people who knew about it, and now it’s this global entity in the horror genre.
Stephen Cognetti: They do such a good job of curating content, and that’s not counting Hell House. They just have great content and horror material. They keep it going and I think they’re only getting better. They’re getting new stuff and new series and I’m just so excited that our films are a small slice of their greater community. I’m just happy to be a part of that.
Geeks of Doom: It’s hard to write and direct one good horror movie. You’ve made three over a relatively short time. One thing I wrote in my review was about the tremendous continuity throughout the Hell House trilogy. What was your process like writing these, because it felt like they could almost be a single 5 1/2-hour film?
Stephen Cognetti: It’s funny you phrased it like that because that’s exactly how I see Hell House for myself: it’s one movie just divided into three acts and each movie is its own act. In Hell House when Alex and his crew arrive, that’s Act I in the greater plot. I always knew while making Hell House that there was this whole backstory I never got to explore because in the field of found-footage, you’re limited to the story you can tell. When you do a traditional narrative film you can justify telling the story from a whole bunch of different perspectives. In found-footage you’re limited to where the camera is, and why the camera is there. I lost a lot of the bigger story I wanted to tell in the first film. So I was always hoping to do more Hell House films to finish out the wider story that was always there in my head. Parts II and III wrote very easily for me because I knew where I was going with them the whole time. I knew II was feeding III, and III was the climax of the whole story. I knew where I wanted to go with it from the get-go.
Geeks of Doom: I was going to ask about found-footage, so I’ll do it now. You touched on some of the challenges within the genre, can you elaborate on them?
Stephen Cognetti: Yeah, there’s two challenges and one advantage to found-footage. The two challenges are one, telling the story, you have to justify why the camera is there. There’s plenty of times you want to show different things, but you need to have a reason. I want to tell a story, but why is that camera there and why is it filming? The second challenge is I do miss having coverage of a scene for horror. When you cover a scene in the traditional narrative, you’ll film it from many different perspectives and have different takes. With found-footage, you’re limited to that one of a scare. There were many scares we’re filming where I wish I could film it from a different angle, but I can’t and I have to make it work from this specific angle.
This also lends itself to the advantage, which is we’re able to shoot these films in 10, 11, 12 days. The first one was a bit longer because we had to shoot some shots in New York, but we’re on location at the Abaddon Motel, for this last one for about 11 straight days. We’re able to cover a 90-page script in 11 days because it’s one camera angle for each scene instead of multiple camera setups.
Geeks of Doom: That’s a crazy schedule and very impressive for you and the cast and crew.
Stephen Cognetti: It was, but that’s the thing, when you work with great people, it’s so easy to bang out the film when everyone is hitting on all cylinders. We’ve had such an amazing crew and cast on this one, and on all of them.
Geeks of Doom: Funny you were talking about having a reason for the camera to be there. I’m a teacher in my day job, and I know the easiest way to get anyone to do anything is money. One thing I loved about this movie was that whenever things got too intense for certain crew and cast members, the eccentric billionaire character Russell Wynn would just double their salary. And in my head, I’m thinking, “Yeah, that would work for me.” That was definitely one of the things I really enjoyed about Hell House LLC III.
Stephen Cognetti: Yeah, that was a challenge in the script and one of the better notes I got while filming was from my producer Joe Bandelli. He’d say, “Dude, I love this scare, but that character would be GONE, back to New York the next day, why are they still here?” And he was right, and I’d have to rewrite and reinforce these characters, and I said ok, Wynn has billions, let’s play with that.
Geeks of Doom: We’ve discussed found-footage. This is a subgenre of horror that goes back to Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and for most modern fans, The Blair Witch Project (1999). Were these inspirations for you and what are your inspirations both found-footage and horror overall?
Stephen Cognetti: You’re definitely right about Cannibal Holocaust and it had its effects on audiences thinking it was so real. Blair Witch was a trailblazer for this subgenre because they did such a fantastic job. It was so scary in such a subtle way. They scared you with the unknown. I think anyone making found-footage films owes the road being paved to that film. It brought found-footage into the mainstream. For me personally, an inspiration in horror and in cinema, The Exorcist is my favorite. I love things paranormal, but related to spooky things like the Devil and satanic possession. The Exorcist creeps me out the most. In the found-footage world, one of my favorites is Lake Mungo (2008) because it does such a fantastic job of doing a fake documentary and making it seem so real, and subtle and spooky.
Geeks of Doom: Well, thank you because I haven’t seen Lake Mungo and now I know what I’m doing later on.
Stephen Cognetti: Oh yeah, if you get a chance it’s great. It is the best time of year to be watching scary movies anyways. That is a great film, very subtle, very eerie, very unsettling and it feels so real, so that’s the best part.
Geeks of Doom: Awesome. With IT: Chapter II coming out this year, and Joker coming soon, 2019 is the year of the clowns. I wrote and I’ll stand by this: the clowns in your movie are some of the scariest clowns I’ve ever seen. I hate clowns. I was 8 years old when the IT miniseries came on TV in 1990 and it helped destroy my childhood. And I’m sitting with my laptop watching my screener of Hell House LLC III and there’s that one clown scare, I nearly tossed my laptop off to the floor. Can you talk about the clowns in the Hell House series and what makes them so effective?
Stephen Cognetti: A lot of people have responded positively to the way we did the clowns in Hell House and I think the reason why is we did them very minimalist. I think clowns are only scary when they’re not over exaggerated and their details aren’t too overdone. When you strip away the red nose and bright colors, you’re left with a very pale clown with dark eyes, a few trails of blood coming from the eyes and mouth. I think it’s freaky because it’s so simple and not over exaggerated in any feature.
What I’ve always said from the first day of shooting the first Hell House LLC movie was that less is more, and subtlety is everything. Those were the two points I wanted to reinforce with every scare, that less is more and to make things subtly creepy. Not only with the scares but with the way the clowns look. It’s a very subtle clown, there aren’t too many over exaggerated features about it and I think that is what is creepy about it.
Geeks of Doom: Is that an animatronic, are you using puppets, or is there a real guy in there?
Stephen Cognetti: We do both, sometimes there’s a guy in there and sometimes it’s full-on mannequin.
Geeks of Doom: Well it works, I can tell ya that..
Stephen Cognetti: Haha, thanks.
Geeks of Doom: One of my good friends is a huge fan of haunted attractions and she visited the Waldorf Estate of Fear [in Lehighton, PA] because she saw and loved the first Hell House LLC.
Stephen Cognetti: Oh that’s awesome, did she take the tour?
Geeks of Doom: Yeah, she actually has a YouTube channel, October365, and she did a full review of it.
Stephen Cognetti: Yes, I think I’ve seen it and I was so happy she said such nice things about the movie.
Geeks of Doom: What’s it like to be in connection with an actual haunted attraction where fans of the film series can go and film the filming sites?
Stephen Cognetti: It’s great because when I first met with Angie Moyer — she owns the haunt — and that was our biggest question: Where are we going to shoot this? But when we found Angie and the Waldorf Estate of Fear, it was perfect and it had everything we needed to shoot. When I met her I told her we had this very low budget indie horror film, maybe no one would ever see it, maybe they will and they’ll want to come out to see where we filmed. She was really cool and was on board with the idea. The movie has gained popularity and it’s really cool to have people want to go see the locations. I’m a horror fan and I love a good haunted attraction, especially this time of year, and the Waldorf Estate of Fear is a really great place to visit, especially in season. It’s definitely worth it because she keeps a lot of the hotel the same way it is in the movie.
Geeks of Doom: I definitely would like to get out there. I’ve somehow never done a haunted attraction, so maybe that can be my first one.
Stephen Cognetti: Oh yeah, they’re so much fun. It’s such an October thing to do. It’s so much fun being in a haunted house in October or doing a haunted hayride and it’s that great feeling you get this time of year.
Geeks of Doom: Well, thank you so much for giving me the time for this interview. My last question is, with this seeming like a perfect end to the Hell House LLC story, what is next for you?
Stephen Cognetti: There’s definitely nothing coming after the events of Hell House III, but we are exploring some earlier events at the Abaddon Hotel for future work but that’s only in development. For me, the next thing I’m shooting is 825 Forest Road. It’s a horror movie, a classic haunted house story that I’m so pumped for. It’s one of those movies where I’m writing it and the scares are giving me the creeps as I’m writing them. It’s giving me chills and I just can’t wait to finish the writing process and get to the production process.
If you’re a fan of found-footage horror, the Hell House LLC trilogy is must-see viewing. They are all available on Shudder now. If you enjoy haunted attractions and looking for a new place to check out, see the Waldorf Estate of Fear in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, and actually explore the Hell House from the films. You can book a reservation at their official site. Check out my friend Toni’s reaction to it and the Hell House films on her YouTube channel October 365. Thanks again to Stephen Cognetti for a great interview and check back at geeksofdoom.com for any news and updates on his future projects.