After a seven-year hiatus from his filmmaking career, Neil LaBute is back with two movies released in 2022, the thriller Out of the Blue and the horror comedy House of Darkness. House of Darkness, particularly, represents an outing in LaBute’s prolific career, as the director doesn’t usually deal with horror. In fact, the last time LaBute was behind a horror film was in 2006, when the unintentionally laughable The Wicker Man remake starring Nicolas Cage was released. So, we were all very curious to see what LaBute would do with House of Darkness and if the film could rise beyond The Wicker Man’s long shadow.
For House of Darkness, LaBute not only wrote the script but also controlled the original story, which gives the upcoming film a significant advantage over The Wicker Man, which had to exist in the confines of previously set expectations. LaBute is also clever enough to bring his vast playwright experience into House of Darkness by making a film that evolves based almost on dialogue alone, with just a few rooms used as a background for its characters’ game of cat-and-mouse. However, even though this horror comedy has its merits, House of Darkness is not scary, surprising, or even particularly funny.
House of Darkness is all about a one-night stand gone wrong, as Hap (Justin Long) takes Mina (Kate Bosworth) home from a bar. We can see Hap is not particularly interested in Mina as a person, but only as a gorgeous woman that’ll allow him to can brag about his luck to his friends. In order to achieve his goal, Hap will flirt, lie, and twist the truth at every turn of his date, thinking only about the prize he gets if he wins the game.
Mina, on the other hand, is unsettlingly honest and direct, and her intentions are not always clear to Hap. Nevertheless, blinded by lust, Hap is willing to ignore every red flag Mina raises, confident that his sexual encounter is the only thing that matters in the night. To the audience, it’s very clear, right from the start, that Mina is not so innocent, and that Hap might meet a gruesome fate before the night is over. For starters, Mina’s home is a huge manor in a remote location, with unstable electricity and poor phone reception. The place checks all the boxes of a haunted house, and with Mina praising the silence and the darkness of the night right before the couple even gets inside the manor, it’s pretty obvious what’s about to happen.
LaBute knows he got rid of the mystery before even the audience goes to the theaters. After all, House of Darkness is being sold as a horror movie, which already alerts the audience to the terror hiding in plain sight. We could argue that by dismissing the secrecy, the film gains a dark comedy effect, as Hap is the only character unaware of his dire situation. It sure can be fun to watch Hap try to convince everyone he’s really a good guy while his contradictions are constantly exposed, and he looks ever more like the jackass he truly is. Even so, this pleasure is not enough to sustain a whole movie, more so because there’s little more House of Darkness offers.
To be fair, LaBute is a genius at exploring power games between men and women, and House of Darkness perfectly reproduces the discomfort of supposed nice guys trying to get laid while still pretending to support the feminist agenda. Hap tries to repeat commonplace pickup lines valuing Mina’s worth as a woman, but as they talk, he cannot avoid slipping some comments that put her into question for not following gender expectations. This is done through a sharply-written dialogue that is delivered with precision by a competent cast, in a conversation that can be enthralling to watch. This effect is reinforced by LaBute’s filmmaking career, as House of Darkness works somewhat as a deconstruction of In the Company of Men, LaBute’s first and maybe most popular film.
In 1997’s In The Company of Men, LaBute explored how men could use their privileged position in society to toy with the feelings and desires of women. A lot has changed in the last 25 years, and while we are still far from getting rid of a patriarchal society, people are at least more conscious of everyday gender disputes. That’s why Hap is not a predator in House of Darkness but a victim unaware of the dangers he faces just because he’s used to approaching women from a place of power.
It’s wonderful to see LaBute’s work evolve to reflect societal changes. However, House of Darkness is not doing anything new. From recent films like The Invisible Man and Ready or Not to indie darlings Titane and The Witch, the pains of womanhood are being exposed in horror-infused stories that effectively spread their message while offering something new and enticing. On the other hand, House of Darkness unfolds in a very predictable way. And while the creepiness builds up perceptibly, the payoff feels too formulaic to compensate for the patient LaBute asks the audience.
There are many reasons to admire what LaBute did with House of Darkness. However, we can respect a movie while not liking it, and House of Darkness burns too slowly to be effective. That’s especially true since all the cards are on the table right at the beginning of the projection, and there’s no surprise factor to shake things up when the movie gets to its predictable ending. LaBute remains a master of writing dialogues, and the whole cast shines in bringing this very awkward one-night stand to life. However, even at an 88-minute runtime House of Darkness feels too long for the little it does.