Cinema Scholars reviews Neil LaBute’s new horror/thriller House Of Darkness. The film stars Justin Long, Kate Bosworth, Gia Crovatin, and Lucy Walters. Saban Films will release House Of Darkness in theaters, On Demand, and digital on Friday, September 9.
The 90s independent film renaissance saw a surge of boundary-pushing pictures that redefined the industry. Back then, everything was shot on film, large studios ruled the theaters, and #metoo wasn’t even a twinkle in Alyssa Milano’s eye. Getting a movie made was a colossal and expensive undertaking. Despite these challenges, many maverick filmmakers created waves by producing critically acclaimed and surprisingly successful low-budget films. Movies like Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994), Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi (1992), and Richard Linklater’s Slackers (1990) proved that there were audiences eager for something other than big studio releases.
Among this new crop of low-budget offerings was the controversial debut of playwright Neil LaBute, In The Company Of Men (1997). The Mamet disciple’s adaptation of his play from stage to screen provided a blistering presentation of toxic misogyny at its absolute worst. LaBute has gone on to write and/or direct many successful projects he will forever be remembered as the director who launched Aaron Eckhart’s career as the vilest woman-hater imaginable.
Cut to 2022 where such stories of brutally unfair sexism take on an entirely new meaning. With what feels like a nod to this cultural shift, LaBute has flipped the toxic masculinity script with a twist on classic horror in his new slow-burn thriller House Of Darkness.
House Of Darkness begins with an all-too-familiar scenario- the ever awkward late-night ride home from the bar with a potential hook-up. Supposed gentleman Hap (Justin Long) is delivering his new cohort Mina (Kate Bosworth) to her home after meeting for the first time at a local drinking hole. As they approach her place, Hap is surprised to find that his latest conquest resides at an immense gated estate. After some painful banter, Hap is further surprised when Mina eagerly invites him inside to continue their night together.
Though it is immediately obvious that Mina is very different than the other women he usually hits on, Hap continues his pursuit nonetheless. As their dialogue continues and the suitor meets Mina’s equally mysterious sisters, the night takes a sinister turn for the horny bachelor.
House Of Darkness is more of a situational horror film versus the typical fright fare. Instead of spooks, jumpscares, and other traditional hallmarks of the genre, LaBute leans almost completely on the dread of the unknown. Continuous dialogue between the characters offers details about Hap and his life while only revealing bits and pieces of information about Mina. She strings Hap (and the audience) along as the tension gradually builds. As Mina’s subtle interrogation continues and Hap’s frustration naturally mounts, it becomes uncomfortably clear that he is the unwitting victim of some evil ruse.
Well, clear to everyone but Hap. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that something isn’t right in this scenario. A beautiful woman who isn’t bothered by the cold living on a creepy estate with unreliable electricity? Is this a nod to the lengths men will go to to get laid? Or is he legitimately mesmerized by the subtle siren? Whatever the case, Hap easily dismisses a ton of red flags that would immediately send the average bro running. And watching Hap dig his hole inch by inch is captivating.
Aside from one very well-timed dramatic sequence, the only real action occurs within the words exchanged onscreen. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a film by a playwright ends up feeling like a three-act play. With very little score and a constant stream of dialogue, House Of Darkness could easily take place onstage. A majority of the film happens in a single room. The story itself takes shape solely within the dialogue. And each performer gets ample opportunity to flex the nuances of their character. As a result, the film has a level of verbosity that only a few filmmakers can master. Thankfully, LaBute’s trademark frank discernment is on full display, making every quietly hazing word completely captivating.
Of course, no witty line is a success without a skilled performer to deliver it. Kate Bosworth scorches as the mildly menacing and beautifully matter-of-fact Mina. It’s clear from the get-go that there’s something a little off about her character, yet Bosworth’s coy and confident allure disarms Hap right along with the audience. With both in her pocket, the film takes on a sort of dark playfulness that terrifies and excites as she unendingly toys with her latest plaything.
Long is not a very convincing bad guy. While he demonstrates some questionable intentions, it’s hard to paint him as the villain based on this particular interaction. Perhaps this is because his character is trying to win over his date. His “I’m one of the good guys” schtick feels almost genuine, despite Mina calling out the little white lies and inconsistencies in his backstory. When Hap’s pleasant demeanor ultimately cracks, it’s tough to tell if this is his “real” normal or because he has been pushed past the point of niceties.
What is certain in House Of Darkness, however, is the fact that all of the narrative leaps for his character work because of Long’s humorous and uncomfortably relatable performance. Long is no stranger to horror, and his quippy demeanor does wonders to help diffuse the ever-growing tension. But when the drama begins to pop, Long’s easy transition to seriousness elevates the terror of his character’s situation.
Though House Of Darkness succeeds in the social commentary horror realm, this film is not for everybody. Fans of dialogue-driven psychological horror will revel in LaBute’s deconstruction and reimagining of a typical tryst within a macabre context. However, fans accustomed to more action in the genre might be disappointed with the slow but intriguing build to the final payoff. But for some, that payoff (even as great it is) might come too late.
Additionally, LaBute’s attention to well-rounded characters ironically means you never really know who you’re rooting for. On one hand, there’s the satisfaction of the chauvinist gotcha moment. Just watching Hap squirm as Mina out-debates him at every turn is great, much less any actual reckoning. But there’s also the nagging truth that, as far as what happens onscreen, Hap doesn’t exactly seem deserving of any ire. Even a possible 11th-hour answer to the “Why Hap” question feels like a weak justification, making the unfortunate mark even more sympathetic.
Even so, House Of Darkness is worthy of a watch for anyone who appreciates some competence in the creepiness. LaBute’s counterpoint to the testosterone-soaked rhetoric of his 90s debut feels like the perfect evolution for the provocateur and a commendable addition to the femme revenge catalog.
Saban Films will release House Of Darkness in theaters, On Demand, and Digital on Friday, September 9.
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