Directed by: Neil LaBute
Written by: Neil LaBute
Starring: Justin Long, Kate Bosworth, Gia Crovatin, Lucy Walters
It's always satisfying to see a chauvinistic male get his comeuppance at the hands of the woman he's pursuing. That's one thing House of Darkness had going for it from the off. Unfortunately, writer-director Neil LaBute is never really able to capitalise on this premise. By the end, the inevitable "payoff" feels less like a payoff and more like a relief that the film has finally ended.
Justin Long's Hap is a man who fancies himself a bit of a player who will later describe his relationship status as "separated" - we know that's in its broadest possible sense. Out for another notch on his bedpost, he meets Mina (played by Kate Bosworth) and, playing Mr nice guy, starts to worm his way into her confidence. She invites him into her suspiciously impressive house, and it seems like he has won himself another conquest. But something about the mysterious Mina isn't quite right.
Not that Hap notices, of course; so blinded is he by his supposed male dominance, and so little does he think of women in general that he doesn't see the obvious: there's something sinister about Mina, and he's being played. Toxic masculinity is the theme here, and it's so far, so good. Watching as Hap arrogantly blunders his way deeper and deeper into Mina's web of deceit is satisfying—to a point. Unfortunately, it's also blindingly obvious to the viewer, to the fact that it becomes a problem.
This storytelling style, usually found in gothic literature and film, can work a treat if done well. But for it to work, the characters must be well-written, and the tension must crescendo into something spectacular and worth waiting for. But here it's just flat: the film plods along, meaningless conversation after meaningless conversation, never really going anywhere, never really exploring the character of either Hap or Mina - the only time we "discover" anything about Mina is at the end of the film during an egregious exposition dump posing as a shock ending. Consequently, the viewer is left with an irritatingly dull experience in which the payoff feels more like the welcome relief from an unpleasant, itchy skin condition than the gratifying finale of a piece of revenge fiction.
Honestly, the only reason House of Darkness is getting a very generous 2-star rating is because of the film's gorgeous visuals. Cinematographer Daniel Katz clearly understood how the film should be shot. He relishes the chance to showcase the house's interior shots (as he well should) and understands how to get the most out of them; he uses square framing and bathes the interiors in muted colours, accented by the subtlety of candlelight and the warmth of crackling fireplaces to evoke the bygone era of the haunted house movie. By echoing films like The Others, The Haunting and The Old Dark House, Katz bequeaths a personality to this fantastically rendered setting, making it as much a character as any of the others in the film. Alas, despite heroic efforts, Katz's work isn't nearly enough to redeem the rest of the film.
House of Darkness had so much potential to be something truly special. But, what should have been one of my favourite films of the festival instead blunders around aimlessly, unable to find direction. It's a shame that the characters weren't better written; it's a shame that there's a complete lack of tension; it's a shame that the inevitable payoff falls flatter than an English pancake; but moreover, it's a damn shame Katz's work will likely go overlooked due to the poor construction of the rest of this film.