There is no easy entry point for those fascinated by the world Yorgos Lanthimos creates in “Dogtooth,” but the impenetrable nature of the material burns through our curiosity like a hot knife cutting through margarine. Here is where the very heart of the director’s well-known panache for elaborate absurdism drew its first beat, in a story of a family so far removed from the civilized world that they could very well be existing on a sound stage. Sometimes that even seems like a legitimate possibility, particularly as we attempt to pigeonhole the plot details through our knowledge of film convention; there are scenes modulated as if they are hinting at something grandiose, like a great reveal just waiting to be uncovered. Our mistake, and therefore his asset, is assuming this all leads to some sort of payoff. This is a movie that demands us to simply observe, contemplate and react without riding any of the traditional waves. There are no reveals, no sudden twists of fate beckoning us on towards a detail highlighting the literal context. And to show any patience with whatever endurance test drives these characters, we are asked to accept them not as fully realized people roused by curiosity, but as experiments comfortable with their cultural isolation.
Vampires rarely require the companionship of fearless dupes to function as predators, but it certainly changes up the monotony of an exhausting routine. Luckily for one featured in “Twilight,” he makes the company of a teenage girl who audaciously regards him as an equal. Maybe that’s part of what cripples the movie surrounding them: it misconstrues the dynamic that is otherwise fundamental. These are not unions established by conflicted beasts and ambivalent humans, but by souls who find that their alienation is one helluva common interest to flirt over. Sometimes, they even share in the same sense of hormonal desire – hers new and emerging, his apparently immune to hundreds of years of undeath. They circle around the point until there is no way to avoid the inevitable: their awkward exchanges and forceful outbursts are a mechanism standing in for eventual foreplay. That might have worked in a film that had any sense of what characters were about beyond their need to touch the forbidden, but like most great psychological lessons in the hands of novices, this is a story far more interested in dancing to rhythms than understanding melody.
When a novice filmmaker exceeds the restrictions of a formula, he proves he may have a talent. When he unsuccessfully attempts the challenge a second time, one wonders if that talent may have just been dumb luck. That becomes the point of consideration throughout the course of “Hell House LLC 2: The Abaddon Hotel,” a sequel that has more questionable distinctions than just a convoluted title. The contrast is made more obvious by how young Stephen Cognetti contradicts the simplicity of his first endeavor, a film that, you may recall, used no CGI and generated monumental scares from camera angles, editing tricks and convincing performances. By most estimations it was a terrific little movie that harbored all the necessities of quality horror. But now he and a new cast of unknowns has been overtaken by the need to stuff a follow-up with laborious explanations, one-note acting, countless subplots involving paranormal experts and one-off viral sensations, confusing shifts between timelines and a final reveal that destroys whatever mystique is left in the premise. If our first trip through the notorious Hell House was wrought with thrilling dangers, here is a reminder that going back is rarely worth the price of admission.
The story goes, as it must, through the grinder of utterly dependable formula: a terrible and inexplicable event occurs to people, and years later the footage of the victims winds up in the hands of mystified onlookers. This is the initial pitch made by “Hell House, LLC,” yet another entry into the “found footage” division of horror films, where the accounts of would-be victims are well-documented by the cameras they hold. This time, the prey has abandoned notions of searching for vengeful witches or spiritual hauntings and have come to, basically, document something less ominous – that is, putting together a local Halloween attraction in Abaddon, New York. Unbeknownst to them, alas, the abandoned hotel that comes to be the site of their frightful venture is more than just dark rooms filled with strange noises and creaking floorboards. It seems to permeate some sort of threatening energy. Sometimes, the viewing lens will even spy this possibility – shadows in corners, symbols etched on the basement walls, figures moving through doorways, and Halloween props that move entirely on their own. Did they bring some sore of malevolence in there with them, or was it always there, lying dormant? Some wisely suggest leaving behind the project, but one stubborn proprietor refuses, leading to a chaotic and frightening opening night in which 15 people pay with their lives, including most of the original managers.