Writer/Director Stephen Cognetti may have finally closed the door on the hellish Abaddon Hotel in the previous installment of the cult horror franchise Hell House LLC, but the saga isn’t over. The fourth entry, Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor, introduces a new setting entirely to set the stage for the next chapter. Cognetti cleverly expands the mythology while returning to the atmospheric foreboding and scares that made the original film such a cult favorite in the first place. While The Carmichael Manor feels like a refreshing return to form, it’s also clear that this franchise is ready to leave the shackles of the found footage format in the past.
It’s 2021. Cold case internet detective Margot (Bridget Rose Perrotta), along with girlfriend Rebecca (Destiny Leilani Brown) and troubled brother Chase (James Liddell), travel to Rockland County, New York, to spend five nights at the reportedly haunted Carmichael Manor. The purpose is to investigate the unsolved family murder that took place there in 1989, but they wind up uncovering dark secrets and connections to the Abaddon Hotel. Worse, they discover that they’re not exactly alone at the sprawling estate.
Cognetti employs an innovative narrative structure that utilizes dual timelines. Through Margot’s investigation, the scares are aplenty in 2021, but the answers come from the past. The key to unlocking those answers, of course, is the eerie clowns from the Abaddon Hotel, found locked away in a storage room in the Carmichael Manor. Cognetti uses this framework to further flesh out the backstory through an original, standalone installment, demonstrating an endless well of creativity in terms of intricate mythology. The previous entry closed the chapter on the Abaddon Hotel, but The Carmichael Manor ensures plenty of horrors still lurk about Rockland County in both the past and the present.
Once again, those creepy clown mannequins are responsible for plenty of chilling encounters over the five terrifying nights. Cognetti keeps things fresh with new spectral frights and an unfamiliar setting. Gone are the labyrinthine corridors of the Abaddon Hotel, and in its place is a large mansion with vast open spaces that evoke liminal horror.
While the effective, goosebump-inducing scares and refreshing expansion of the story feel like a return to form for this franchise, The Carmichael Manor is hampered by its found footage format. The intrepid Margot makes the familiar missteps into found footage trope territory that seals her group’s fate. Perrotta imbues Margot with infectious energy but struggles to find the balance that offsets her character’s constant rebuffs of her companions’ safety concerns and fears. The trio are more effective as a delivery system of new mythos than as fully realized individuals. Cognetti, along with cinematographer Josh Layton’s tricky camerawork, keeps the scares and narrative zipping at a brisk pace to offset the familiar found footage trappings. Still, the contrived means of forcing the central characters to work against their self-preservation instincts to get them to the finale does dampen its impact.
Still, The Carmichael Manor feels like a return to form where it counts most. Those who missed the spine-tingling terror those unsettling clowns bring will find that here, but Cognetti keeps things feeling fresh with new faces and lurking terror in open spaces. Some even in broad daylight. Most of all, this installment demonstrates there’s still plenty left in the creative well for both scares and storytelling; stay through the credits for even more proof of this.
As effective as the mythology and scares are here, now four films deep, it’s clear that Cognetti’s outgrown the found footage format that launched this franchise. But the unsettling set pieces, memorable scares to keep you awake, and a thrilling tease of future potential ensure The Carmichael Manor should keep fans of the franchise happy and hungry for more.
Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor debuts on Shudder on October 30, 2023.