Movie Review ~ Fear the Night


The Facts:

Synopsis: Eight women attend a bachelorette party at a remote farmhouse in the California hills. They are interrupted by the arrival of masked intruders who surround the place and begin shooting arrows at the home and the guests. One partygoer leads the women in making a stand against the attackers as they fight back to save themselves throughout a single dark night.
Stars: Maggie Q, Travis Hammer, Kat Foster, James Carpinello, Highdee Kuan, Ito Aghayere, Gia Crovatin
Director: Neil LaBute
Rated: NR
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: Who knows where writer/director Neil LaBute would have been now had he not found his way into an ill-advised remake of The Wicker Man in 2006. That Nicolas Cage turkey was howlingly funny when it was supposed to be scary and depressingly dull at the moment its famous plot was due to become gruesomely twisted. LaBute’s talent with biting dialogue that signaled the sparring between the sexes was likely the wrong match with the folk horror remake to begin with; that he couldn’t pull it off shouldn’t have been that much of a shocker.

In the years following, LaBute tooled around in projects that didn’t restore his profile by much, but he did find some footing in 2022 with House of Darkness. That Kate Bosworth/Justin Long slow burn is an underrated, spooky good time, and I’d encourage you to check that one out some dark stormy night. You may consider that one even sooner if what I’m about to lay out for you regarding LaBute’s latest doesn’t sound that appealing. While Fear the Night is passable soggy pulp entertainment for an “in a pinch” watch, it never raises the volume loud enough to leave much of an impression.

Recovering addict and veteran Tess (Maggie Q, Divergent) is steeling herself for a bachelorette weekend to celebrate her younger sister’s upcoming wedding. Happy to be reunited with her kid sis, she’s wary about spending time with another nitpicking sibling, Beth (Kat Foster), and several of Beth’s snooty Karen-esque friends. Traveling to a remote cabin that the three sisters share as part of an inheritance, Tess hopes to make it through without any major blowouts with Beth, clenching her fists and biting her tongue when she’s constantly reminded how far she’s fallen.

A convenience store run-in with a pack of degenerate men led by Perry (Travis Hammer, From Black) doesn’t damper the women’s mood, but it does give viewers a small taste of how Tess is willing to insert herself into a potentially dangerous situation without thinking twice. Arriving at the cabin, they are joined by a few late arrivals (including Gia Crovatin’s Mia and Ito Aghayere’s Noelle) and take note of the two male caretakers down the road hired to watch the expansive property while it is not being used. The party barely begins when an arrow slices through the night air, surprising not just the guests but the audience. 

This is when Fear the Night could have turned the tables on the usual home invasion thriller and gone a different route. After all, LaBute has made a thriller (2008’s Lakeview Terrace) about the safety of a dwelling being violated and the need to fight back. So, he should be familiar with the steps to achieve a consistent state of suspense and dread. Yet it’s aggravating to see how Fear the Night feels the need to do a deep dive into misogyny early on to justify the crime and punishment to come later.

If there’s one reason to see Fear the Night, it’s for Maggie Q delivering another stellar performance bound to go criminally unnoticed. An actress that impressed in minor film roles early in her career, she’s starred in a hit TV series and headlined the dud (but decent!) The Protégé in 2021. Now here comes Tess, a role that feels as if it were written for her (or with her in mind), and she nails it. I only wish the supporting cast were as strong. There are too many partygoers and indistinguishable men hunting the women down, and while it means more deaths, none of which are staged with any flash, it robs us of more time with the actors we appreciate. This could have been a four women/three men movie instead of our seven/three split.

It’s never a good sign in my book when a movie opens at the end and then flashes back. That’s a crummy parlor trick of a plot device because then all the viewer is doing is waiting for the film to get back to the “beginning.” In Fear the Night, this framework is so unnecessary that I’m surprised editor Vincent Welch didn’t push back hard on LaBute to cut it completely. Though technically savvy for a low-indie thriller, most of the movie feels like a weekend experiment LaBute put together with some friends. Aside from Maggie Q, Crovatin, and Aghayere, the acting is strictly serviceable (and in the case of Foster, hardly worth mentioning again), so the only thing to fear here is the potential time-waste. 

Movie Review ~ House of Darkness

The Facts:

Synopsis: Driving home to her secluded estate after meeting at a local bar, a player out to score thinks his beautiful, mysterious date will be another casual hook-up. While getting acquainted, their flirtation turns playful, sexy, and sinister. Hoping to get lucky, his luck may have just run out.
Stars: Justin Long, Kate Bosworth, Gia Crovatin, Lucy Walters
Director: Neil LaBute
Rated: R
Running Length: 88 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Playwright Neil LaBute had a healthy go in Hollywood for a time. Bursting onto the scene with the wicked workplace black comedy In the Company of Men in 1997, the director went on an intriguing spree of work that included everything from the 2000 comedy Nurse Betty to a misguided remake of The Wicker Man in 2006. Adapting his celebrated play into The Shape of Things in 2003 is still one of my favorites, as is the time capsule that is 1998’s Your Friends and Neighbors. Aside from the decidedly commercial Lakeview Terrace in 2008 and 2010’s Death at a Funeral, LaBute has mucked around in TV/streaming the past few years, having been cold-shouldered from the theater world.

I had to read the credits for House of Darkness a few times because it had been so long since I’d seen LaBute’s name attached to a project I had completely forgotten that I was missing his acerbic style. One watch of the creepy preview, though, and you could almost instantly spot the LaBute dialogue. There’s a rhythm to his work; a snap and a crackle between characters that is undeniably entertaining to sit back and enjoy. That the writer/director was again exploring the horror genre made it more intriguing.

An unexplained but unnerving opening image over the credits sends a shiver sliver up your spine before a title card reading “Once Upon a Time…” appears on the screen. It’s an excellent set-up for LaBute to drop the viewer right into the action, following a car down a dark road at the end of an evening out. Hap (Justin Long, Tusk) met Mina (Kate Bosworth, The Devil Has a Name) at a bar and offered to give her a ride home. Driving so far out of his way, he’s hoping for more than a handshake, and once they arrive at her impressively imposing castle of a home, he readily accepts her offer to come in for a drink.

Once inside, the two get to know one another better, which is when LaBute’s talent for verbal sparring comes in handy. Like him or hate him, LaBute is excellent with dialogue and treating his characters with the intelligence they deserve. Reading between the lines of passive-aggressive retorts or half-answered responses to questions, these characters hold one another accountable even when it’s against their better judgment to do so. In this way, House of Darkness feels like it could have been adapted from, or started as, a stage play because there are so many long stretches that are just Hap and Mina talking to one another without much else happening.

Of course, there are other things afoot in the house. As much as Mina says they are alone in the large manor, Hap catches glimpses of shadowy figures lurking down dark halls and other nooks but keeps shaking them off as figments of his tired imagination. To his credit, LaBute never tips his hand too far into letting the audience in on what’s happening, even though it’s not a giant leap to grasp where things are heading before the night is over. Still, there’s a hot-wire tension between the two that builds throughout, and the deeper Hap gets into it with Mina, the more we question who we should side with if things go south. 

Casting is pivotal for a small chamber piece like this, and LaBute was on target with Long and Bosworth. Long has the right chops to play an appealing if smug, proto-nice guy that still wants some physical compensation for his good deed. There’s a nastier way to play the role (see Barbarian, for example), and Long resists the urge to reveal all of those rough edges too early, giving Hap a fighting chance to stay in our good graces as long as possible. I thoroughly enjoyed Bosworth’s slinky role as a possible femme-fatale; her every move suggests someone who wants the hunt and plays with their prey before moving in for the final attack. It’s a performance that needs to build steadily, and Bosworth meters the clues out nicely. 

LaBute isn’t out to jump scare you, but there are a decent number of chilling moments in House of Darkness, enough to make you consider keeping a light on while watching it. It’s a surprisingly brisk watch, perfectly rounded out at 88 satisfying minutes. There are enough subtle touches by the actors and director sprinkled around that it might even be one you consider watching again to catch what you missed on your first trip. Maybe House of Darkness signals LaBute’s next wave is approaching, but for now, I’m content that this tour was so rewarding.