House of Darkness is Neil LaBute’s second foray into horror since his still-polarizing Wicker Man remake. But we’re not here for that. With its small cast of characters and very bare-bones setup, House of Darkness feels like a one- or two-act play stretched to fit a longer feature-length runtime. This is, put simply, good and bad. It has its strengths and weaknesses depending on your mileage for the director’s work and personality (which always seem to figure into the film somehow), as this certainly feels like a movie that Neil LaBute would make.
Justin Long plays Hap, a guy who’s met a woman named Mena at a bar. He’s driven her back home from their night out together, where he is hoping for some action. Mena invites him in for a couple more drinks once they get there, then realizes she lives in an actual mansion. Hap’s confidence level skyrockets as he brags to his friend about the rich lady who took him home. Thinking this will lead him to score, Hap spends his time coasting on his own inflated image of self-importance to Mena. He tries to come off as charming (and fuckable) but says specific things that prompt Mena to probe with clarifying questions. When she becomes more interested in getting the truth out of Hap by asking him about his life, he becomes more of a mess, stuttering and mumbling as if the lines he’s memorized are of no use here anymore. He’s been following a playbook and Mena is calling him out on it. It isn’t long until Hap starts to feel manipulated, and Mena definitely doesn’t seem to be the only one who dwells in the quiet, dark mansion.
It’s easy to see this as a companion to The Wicker Man where you could pick out a thesis of the assumed blind authoritative power men wield over women, Privilege with a capital P. House of Darkness attempts to investigate that privilege, but applied to the circle of social & sexual situations and gender norms that pertain a little closer to the impetus of the modern mating dance. The film isn’t subtle about it either, which works to help it along as a potentially self-condemning work. It isn’t eager to outline faults of heteronormative cis men, which is unsurprising but expected. It does get repetitive, almost purposefully so, as its male character at times grasps at straws to attempt to get out of a hole he dug for himself. And while most anyone in the sole male lead role could (and might) make the events in the first half or so unbearably grating given the dialogue, Justin Long manages to keep you partially transfixed in his role of Hap. The conversations Hap and Mena have together feel excruciatingly long, mostly because of the too-real nature of having two characters act out probably the most awkward “date” dialog you’ve heard. There’s a point to it, but there’s quite a lot of it.
House of Darkness also puts focus on the authority of voice in storytelling. At a later point in the film, Hap is expected to tell a ghost story. Once he’s finished, he will be told one in return. He doesn’t know any, and after a frustrating build-up to finally telling one he opts to spell out a lewd yet basic sexual fantasy, with a ghost thrown in to satisfy the check mark. The ghost story he’s told in return is what flips the switch in him, and once it’s done he acts out the quiet parts of his earlier nature. He becomes spiteful and insulting towards Mena until the end of the film. But Mena never has anything to hide, Hap just hasn’t asked the right questions. By expressing his own unfiltered desires (more than once) Hap has more than opened up the opportunity for Mena to toy with his sexual expectations, she does so in ways that feel tailored to steal his thunder. It’s a flat-out denial that suggests LaBute recognizes the need for catharsis in denying men their currency of sexual power. Nowhere can it be figured that Hap is a good guy who becomes strung along in any capacity.
So this is what House of Darkness does well: it creates a compelling mystery in the beginning and superimposes another layer of storytelling on top of it to inform the audience (and Hap) the planned set of events. Because this feels like a short play stretched to fit a film’s length of time, this takes a good, long chunk of time. There’s a great sequence that really doles out the terror embedded around the halfway point in the film which will probably stick with you even after the credits have rolled. It sticks out from the rest of the film because it’s the only sequence thus far that gives you any wordless action, Justin Long’s expressions and screams really sell it and get you invested in the rest of the film.
Here’s another thing: anyone familiar with classic and gothic horror will be able to call this by a mile. That isn’t to say the film isn’t entertaining, it’s just a little disappointing that the buildup is so time-consuming to arrive where you pretty much figured anyway. In an attempt to keep this free of any reveals the film has taken on to do itself, much of those details are kept out of this review. House of Darkness isn’t a masterpiece by any stretch but it is still a good story worthy of being experienced fresh for the first time.
House of Darkness will release in Theaters September 9, 2022 and on Demand and Digital September 13, 2022 courtesy of Saban Films.
House of Darkness isn’t a masterpiece by any stretch but it is still a good story worthy of being experienced fresh for the first time.
Andre is an avid film watcher, blogger and podcaster. You can read his words on film at letterboxd and medium, and hear his voice on movies, monsters, and other weird things on Humanoids From the Deep Dive every other Monday. In his “off” time he volunteers as a film projectionist, reads fiction & nonfiction, comics, and plays video games until it’s way too late.