Writer and director Stephen Cognetti has sneakily established a (largely) well-regarded franchise with the Hell House films. Operating outside the studio system Cognetti’s movies, along with the V/H/S franchise, have done much to keep found footage horror vital in the years after post-Blair Witch saturation. With Hell House Origins: The Carmichael Manor, the fourth film in the series defies the laws of diminishing returns through a simple commitment to being utterly terrifying.
Taking the form of a Lake Mungo-style documentary interspersed with a – to be blunt – very Blair Witch set up, as couple Margot (Bridget Rose Perrotta) and Rebecca (Destiny Leilani Brown), along with Margot’s troubled brother Chase (James Liddell) pitch up the infamous Carmichael Manor. Their aim is to investigate 34 years of reported supernatural activity since the murder of the female members of the Carmichael family and the subsequent disappearance of patriarch Arthur, and son Patrick. Of course, the trio get more than they bargain for, and discover a connection to the case of the Abaddon Hotel, previously depicted in earlier instalments, a few miles down the road.
There isn’t any reason that The Carmichael Manor couldn’t have functioned as a standalone film, but you must admire Cognetti’s attempt to mesh this new location into an already increasingly convoluted lore, even if the fate of the Carmichaels and Margot’s amateur sleuths are sometimes shoehorned into the narrative somewhat awkwardly. More artfully incorporated into the wider tropes of the found footage format are recent developments like the net sleuth phenomenon made popular by documentaries like Don’t F**k With Cats, and there’s also an exceptionally well done Zoom call set piece that matches anything in Rob Savage’s Host.
In facts, there’s nothing that Cognetti isn’t willing to throw at the wall in the service of scaring the viewer. There’s a Weeping Angel-style use of the malignant clown mannequins from the first Hell House, eerie, crackly home video footage of the Carmichaels, and ghostly bouncing balls so blatantly pilfered from The Changeling that it would be quite egregious if it wasn’t done so well. There are jump scares, dread-laden shots lingering on negative space, and shadowy figures lurking in the background. And once again, those clowns? Christ, the clowns.
While The Carmichael Manor is far from original, it’s a cut above most horror releases so far this year just by having a very solid grasp of how its various tropes work. Stephen Cognetti may have had to work overtime to establish the Carmichael’s place in the wider lore, but he sure knows how to make a scary movie. His use of the found footage format remains consistent, and for the most part he gets fine performances, particularly Destiny Leilani Brown, who gets the meatiest characterisation, and who is on the receiving end of the most spectacular scares. Hell House LLC Origins is that rare thing – far rater than horror fans would like – a first-rate sequel.
Available to stream on Shudder now