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
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.