Ever since his 1997 Sundance smash In the Company of Men, Neil LaBute has found a multitude of ways to express man’s anxious fear of the females in our species. This phobia reached an apotheosis of sorts with the risible The Wicker Man in 2006, which allowed Nicolas Cage to soar to new heights of internet meme-dom as a sheriff cornered by a cabal of neo-pagan women. Now LaBute is back in the saddle with Saban Films‘ House of Darkness, an initially engaging but eventually eye-rolling spectacle showcasing his unique brand of sexual anxiety.
Justin Long stars as a corporate jerk looking to hook up with a mysterious blonde (Kate Bosworth) whom he meets at a local bar. Driving her home, he’s staggered to discover that she lives in an old castle off the grid. Curious, drunk, and strangely aroused, he leads her (or does she lead him?) into the house and attempts a clumsy seduction. He’s constantly thwarted by a succession of surprises, including the appearance of a younger, yet equally comely sister (Gia Crovatin). That the sisters are named Mina and Lucy should immediately tip off the attentive viewer as to what’s really going on.
LaBute, having spent the last several years scribing a TV series about the descendent of Abraham Van Helsing, presumably still needs to get Bram Stoker out of his system. The slow, suspenseful first half and gory climax are nasty and daring in a way that network television isn’t allowed to be. A playwright first and foremost, LaBute seems to relish the opportunity to sharpen his verbal knives, and the restricted setting and Mamet-like cadence of the dialogue are for the most part deftly handled. Unfortunately, Darkness turns out to be one of those torture porn revenge movies in which a creep gets his violent comeuppance for being a creep, and the agents of vengeance are just as ignoble as their victim.
Long, who has often found himself the hapless victim in gross-out horror films (Jeepers Creepers, Drag Me to Hell, Tusk, etc.) gives a cagey, rib-tickling performance as a man so desperate to score he’s willing to endure the interminable foreplay of his possibly undead hosts. Lacking all scruples, he’s a stand-in for weak men everywhere. Bosworth holds her own as a character who must exude charm both ancient and contemporary. Their weird chemistry is genuine; she and Long apparently became a couple shortly after filming wrapped. A third sister (Lucy Walters) materializes at the end, too late to really become a character.
What pleasures House of Darkness provides in the way of patient, slow-burn suspense it lacks in thematic richness and surprise. Viewers forbearing enough to wait for the shocking ending might shrug their shoulders as if to say, “That’s it?” Male-female relations have enough obstacles these days; filmmakers who choose to muddy the waters—in this case by siphoning names and tropes from a 19th-century novel—are doing us no favors. His bloodlust now satisfied, LaBute can now go back to people hating each other without the sheen of supernatural metaphor. ♦
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