Stephen Cognetti deserves credit for successfully reviving two common horror themes, found-footage expeditions and demonic clowns, in the fourth installment of the Hell House franchise. This is due in part to the mythology he has built in the previous three films, which focuses on occult events at the Abaddon Hotel in rural New York. The addition of this quasi-prequel adds depth and complexity to these overused tropes, giving them a more chilling effect.
The film centers around a group of people discussing their friend Margot’s attempt to make a true-crime documentary about the Carmichael Manor. In 1989, there was a possible double or triple murder at the manor, with suspects being Arthur Carmichael or his son Patrick, who was discovered to have worked at the cursed hotel in Cognetti’s retelling of Lovecraftian tales. After the incident, both men disappeared into the snowy woods surrounding the manor. Margot, along with her girlfriend Rebecca and mentally unstable brother Chase, bravely decides to spend five nights at the supposedly haunted property with cameras in hand.
The mockumentary format incorporates the Carmichaels’ personal home videos, foreshadowing the events that the three filmmakers encounter. Despite their search for supernatural occurrences, stumbling upon two menacing clown mannequins upstairs, believed to have been taken from the Abaddon by Patrick Carmichael, serves as a strong indication to leave immediately.
Cognetti’s skillful use of the backstory is not the only impressive aspect; he and cinematographer Josh Layton also demonstrate a clever mastery of camera techniques, crucial for creating an immersive found-footage experience. The strategic placement and focus of the camera effectively evoke a sense of looming terror, comparable to the sharp execution often seen in Japanese horror films. However, even with familiar elements such as creepy door-knocks and rolling clown noses reminiscent of “The Shining”, Cognetti manages to evoke a fresh sense of fear. Films like “Ringu” were known for their ability to capture the eerie intrusion of moving images, and Cognetti’s film presents a modern twist on this concept with a scene where Rebecca’s laptop is invaded during a presentation. Overall, Cognetti’s film delivers a compelling and nostalgic tale, akin to that of a seasoned storyteller.