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Photo: ‘House of Darkness’
There’s something funny about horror movies.
Everyone screens the genre of the movie they’re about to watch, that much is inescapable now whether you’re trying to find something to watch at home or driving to a theater for a night out. Genre is often the primary factor for the casual movie watcher. And unless they’ve been tricked or blindfolded during the selection process, no one watches a horror movie without knowing that something unsavory is about to take place. And even if they had been blindfolded, it isn’t long before you pick up on some of the hallmarks of a horror flick. The tension in the first act. Foreshadowing. An uneasy score. A soon-to-be victim says, “Did you see that?” before his fears are assuaged by a soon-to-be perpetrator.
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The game in a horror movie is a cat and mouse game, flitting between light and impending darkness. Then comes the twist, the cat gets the mouse, and the light disappears. In ‘House of Darkness,’ writer and director Neil LaBute relish that game, in a horror movie where the stakes are pretty much the same as cat and mouse. Maybe best known for his infamous rendition of ‘The Wicker Man,’ featuring the oft-memed Nick Cage vs. beehive scene, Neil LaBute is a playwright, screenwriter, and director who is quietly prolific in the horror and comedy genres. In fact, ‘House of Darkness’ isn’t even his first feature to be released this year. Amid writing on shows like ‘American Gigolo’ with Jon Bernthal and vampire-themed ‘Van Helsing,’ LaBute managed to write and direct ‘Out of the Blue.’
To critics and audiences alike, ‘Out of the Blue’ missed the mark as a Neo-Noir thriller with a twist so obvious that you thought it could never happen. Being a noir film, it’s naturally a take on a decades-old genre, but LaBute’s effort reads like a take on it from the actual 1930s. For much of it, the dialogue is so unrealistic, the twist so telegraphed, and the writing so obvious that it seems like satire. And with its occasional wit and absurd character obsessions (like Hank Azaria’s character’s obsession with dicks), it could be interpreted as one if it weren’t for LaBute’s insistence on the serious ultimately doomed romance between the two leads. In ‘Out of the Blue,’ LaBute wants you to seriously invest in the relationship of his two leads before the obvious twist, but in ‘House of Darkness’ he does the opposite.
‘House of Darkness’
Though it’s a more cut and dry horror movie in the beats it hits, ‘House of Darkness’ spends every second it isn’t totally vampiric being entertaining in other ways. And whether it’s a testament to LaBute’s script or not, the comedy in this film is successful, frequent, and dripping not only with dramatic irony but also a little bit of blood (mwahaha).
Justin Long plays Hap, a rather hapless (no coincidences here) 30-something businessman who’s stumbled into his ideal night. He met Mina (Kate Bosworth), a mysterious and seductive lady, at the bar and offered to drive her home to her country estate. As they pull up to her manor, Hap begins babbling, and he doesn’t really stop for the rest of the film. Justin Long has a history in mid-2000’s spoof-ish movies like ‘Dodgeball’ and ‘Accepted,’ but has recently padded his acting status with more dramatic indie roles like ‘Tusk.’ Long is phenomenal in this film, and his experience in comedy roles definitely lends itself to the fun LaBute is having in the script. Long is laugh-out-loud funny in this movie, and the bumbling sleaziness of Hap he pulls off so naturally, it raises some questions. It’s especially good foiled against Bosworth’s Mina, who has a way of cooly cutting through his act with every line she says.
In Hap, LaBute is no doubt exploring the facade modern men have adopted in their pursuit of women, a sort of cheeky nice guy routine who masks his advances in fake decency. Hap speaks in half-truths and white lies from the moment we meet him, and Mina calls him on it at every turn. There’s an element of the movie that is somewhat a battle of the sexes, as Hap keeps pushing the limits of his “charm” despite Mina’s underminings. But hey, it’s gotten him this far, Hap seems to think, even as Mina reveals his terrible pickup line from the bar (“Hey, uh, you don’t know me, but I think you should…”) to which Hap then feels compelled to say “I wasn’t there trying to pick up girls. I was just having some drinks, doing my thing.”
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Tension and Dialogue
Assuming it’s intentional on LaBute’s part, and that ‘Out of the Blue’ was a one-off, the banter between Hap and Mina is palpably awkward, as Hap is often rambling toward incoherence and contradictions. Mina continues to coax the awkward truth out of him, his real intentions despite being “one of the good guys” as he describes himself. Despite all Hap’s sputtering, there’s no fat on LaBute’s dialogues. It rings with realism, much credit to Long’s pitch-perfect delivery, with unusual quality, pointedness, and entertainment value for a horror movie. The way the film is structured, too, the dialogue needs to be entertaining because most of the film is two — sometimes three — people sitting in a room talking.
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LaBute’s playwright experience is certainly on display in ‘House of Darkness’ as he manages to keep nearly all the action within a single room and between the dynamic of his two leads… and do so while keeping the viewer engaged and laughing. LaBute also uses tension to a great yet understated effect, as the tension really drives the movie forward — though it’s a different effect for everyone. For Hap, it’s sex. For the viewer, it’s the twist. For Mina, well… you should watch the movie, but for every second the film creeps along, the tension builds and builds. By the end, you can hardly take it anymore, and till the end, you’ll have to wait. But you’ll be glad you did.
The viewer knows from the very beginning what kind of movie ‘House of Darkness’ is, but the fun LaBute has in depriving you of that satisfying twist is infectious. There isn’t really any mystery about what the twist even is. Just ask any literature fan if he could guess what two sisters named Mina and Lucy (Gia Crovatin) have in store in their gothic mansion. But LaBute takes pleasure in teasing out the inevitable. Luckily, it’s worth the wait.
You can find LaBute’s upcoming work on seasons of ‘American Gigolo’ and ‘Van Helsing.’
CAST AND CREW:
Writer: Neil LaBute
Director: Neil LaBute
Cast: Justin Long, Kate Bosworth, Gina Crovatin, Lucy Walters
Michael Barnett…associate producer
Stephen Morgenstern…executive producer
Shelley D. Needham…co-producer
Jonathan Saba…executive producer
By Patrick Lynott
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