They sow seeds of expectation in every audience member who hears them, with the promise of journeys to distant lands guarded by mythical beasts and inhabited with untold horrors. Places where fictions have a pulse, and facts are hard to come by. A realm in which films like House of Darkness revel, where mortality tales and gang rape ghost stories are one in the same.
That is the place Neil LaBute inhabits with his latest film, where this writer director melds classic literature with contemporary themes of empowerment between genders, taking a ‘70s chiller template dripping with Hammer Horror homage, then recruiting the underrated Justin Long and Kate Bosworth to imbue his story with pathos.
As much as this film initially starts out as a two-hander, LaBute is also savvy enough to lean into atmospherics, whether that might be open fires, flaming candles, or more cliched elements like power outages and nighttime noises. That being said, even with gothic overtones permeating this piece, audiences will find themselves on familiar ground, as LaBute once again delves into male weakness.
Justin Long, who importantly remains nameless throughout, plays a charming lothario who believes he has found his latest conquest in Mina (Kate Bosworth). However, as they pull up to her ancestral pile under the cover of night, he soon realises something is amiss. Captivating and ethereal in her demeanour, his demure date plies him with more alcohol whilst promising physical temptations.
It is a classic cat-and-mouse scenario which both actors work hard to deliver, with Bosworth matching Long as her coolness disarms his arrogance and he slowly comes unstuck in the eerie silence. Conversations of infidelity, morality, and marriage shape each encounter, while classic horror iconography clues audiences into the origins of this tale.
Antes are also upped by the unannounced arrival of Lucy (Gia Crovatin), sister to Mina, who just materialises out of nowhere. Equally bewitching in her countenance and her taste for brutal honesty, Lucy aids her sister in backing this man-toy into a corner for fun. Once the penny drops — for those not too distracted by LaBute’s mastery of language — the story then becomes about how he closes things out.
With Justin Long tapping into his everyman arrogance, which dissolves so seamlessly into emasculated victimisation, House of Darkness remains gripping throughout. LaBute might be playing in a familiar sandbox, populated by alabaster brides seeking to be sated, but his allegorical vice tightens all too quickly around contemporary concerns, turning this ghoulish two-hander into something with considerable depth.
Cavernous enclaves and unsettling mounds of discarded shoes do a good job at populating certain sequences with an undercurrent of dread, as an exhausted man closes his eyes for a moment, only to awaken bound hands and feet to an old wooden chair. What follows is an abstract digression which ends in searing pain and splintered bone, followed by agonising screams.
To talk about the inspiration behind LaBute’s latest film, would be to give everything away. House of Darkness is a movie best experienced with no preconceptions. For fans of this writer-director, rest assured there will be no disappointments, as his grasp of character, dialogue, and structure remain undiminished, delivering a piece of work with much more bite than some might expect, given the cliched surroundings.
In terms of performance, Justin Long confirms how good he can be given decent material, offering a nuanced and layered portrayal of someone who deserves no sympathy. Yet his hands still cling to a shred of humanity, irrespective of the more questionable choices he might make. Kate Bosworth also adds unexpected shades to Mina, above and beyond the glassy-eyed temptress archetype she is saddled with.
As the net continues to close during those final minutes, House of Darkness reveals a weakness which has more to do with budget than ambition, as the horrific elements promised throughout finally show their hand. However, even that harks back to Hammer Horror homage, in a time when visual effects had yet to be considered sophisticated storytelling tools.
Here they represent literal emasculation, as feminine guile and tenacity win out against the baser instincts of man. House of Darkness leaves audiences with much to consider as the credits roll and blood red titles draw a discreet veil over this contemporary Gothic offering.