Review: HOUSE OF DARKNESS, A Tempting Place To Hide
The eyes can grow accustomed to the dark.
Still, the central theme of House of Darkness will become visible to most viewers too soon. Maybe that’s because while director Neil Labute tries to infuse a sense of mystery into his first horror film since Nicolas Cage’ ill-fated remake of The Wicker Man (2006).
He’s hampered by a script that makes it all too obvious what’s going on. He needn’t have bothered. Though the gothic atmosphere and coy dialogue are fun, they don’t really create any mystery for horror fans who can readily guess where this one night stand from hell is headed.
The film opens as a car makes its late-night way towards a remote country estate, the lavish but rundown kind only seen in movies. Inside the car are a man and a woman, the player and the played.
Only the player in question is, without knowing it, playing both roles. As these characters leave the car and enter that decaying old mansion, conversations ensue, character is deconstructed and Labute’s larger point becomes undeniable. Some people (read that men) just never learn.
As might be expected, Justin Long is a serious asset here, though the ghost of recent films hangs over his character. In Tusk (2014), he was a thoroughly unlikeable lout who becomes gradually more human through the ordeal he’s put through. In The Wave (2019), he played a softer but still self-involved character undergoing a similar arc.
Long isn’t really repeating himself here, though. His clueless, self-serving player is easy to see through from the get-go but Long is great at playing someone who feels he’s been misjudged, even as his character defects hobble his every attempt at moral decision making.
Kate Bosworth matches Long’s nervous energy note for note with a sense of calm and playful control over her situation. Even if we aren’t initially sure of her motives, it seems obvious that whatever may transpire between them will be decided by her not him.
Yet this question of what her character wants will come back to haunt the film, for those who choose to wrestle with her choices. That she isn’t exactly what this man thought she was gives Bosworth great opportunities to explore the predatory nature of the encounter.
Is she the protagonist here? Does the film even have one? Bosworth takes hold of the possibilities provided by that sort of ambiguity to anchor the film in troubling waters.
I’ll say nothing else of the film's plot or characters. To do so, even to reveal names, would potentially provide at least mild spoilers. Suffice to say that anyone watching who has any background in horror film at all will figure out what kind of horrors await here.
Labute, however, infuses the well-worn tropes of this kind of horror with real wit, and insight into why it bears relevance today. He’s an accomplished filmmaker who has been at his best when unpacking the things about men they refuse to see for themselves (In The Company of Men , The Shape of Things ). He’s also fascinated by the destruction of such men by women.
The point here is that Labute understands certain things. The worst sort of men are the unrelenting ones who do not seem to be capable of growth or even self-awareness. When pushed to their breaking point, they break others. Any repentance comes a day late.
It might be fair to think Labute is suggesting that it might not have mattered at all what sort of man Justin Long’s character was. This isn’t really a revenge story, a la I Spit on Your Grave (1978) or Revenge (2017) or The Nightingale (2019).
Instead, it falls into the category of movies that want to examine men. I’m thinking The Beguiled (1971) or the recent Men (2022). It knows there’s darkness in there but it’s darkness mixed with other things. Is Labute hinting at something like a masculine original sin?
There’s fodder aplenty here for those who wish to go down philosophical roads, particularly if they are able to see a certain tragedy at work in Labute's narrative. Wherever the film is locating darkness, there’s no doubt that darkness is an awful thing. Those who who need happy endings (sexual pun intended) need not watch House of Darkness, though they may well benefit from asking why characters would choose to hide there, waiting, and doing whatever it takes to stay safe.
Dave Canfield contributed to this story.