House Of Darkness is barely a movie. It may be coherent and watchable—certainly not the mesmerizing trainwreck of his earlier remake of The Wicker Man—but writer-director Neil LaBute’s barely-movie fails because it’s strangely bereft of ambition, featuring slight conflict, a nominal payoff, and virtually nothing to say, despite an onslaught of dialogue. In fact, the only seeming purpose of the film is to demonstrate that LaBute can make one on what is obviously a severely limited budget.
The film opens as a man (Justin Long) drives a beautiful woman (Kate Bosworth) home from a bar. Upon their arrival, he discovers that she lives in a gothic mansion, complete with ominous, unreliable light fixtures, but her invitation inside hints seductively that he’ll have an exciting night to brag later about with his friends. But it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more going on here than a midnight rendezvous.
One thing that House Of Darkness delivers is first-act intrigue, as the cat-and-mouse conversation between the two leads proves engaging enough to distract them—and the audience—from the fact that they haven’t mentioned their names in almost thirty minutes of the film. Long imbues “Hap” with the stuttering insincerity of a man trying to get laid, while Bosworth’s ethereal “Mina” proves seductive while exposing contradictions in the game he pitches. Dialogue makes explicit the subtext that Hap is a liar, and that Mina seeks only the truth—though she proves coy about where that truth leads. Nevertheless, it’s an effective set-up that might have been capitalized upon in a better film.
But by the dawn of the second act, LaBute’s shtick already begins to wear thin. The arrival of Mina’s sister Lucy (Gia Crovatin) sets up the opportunity for plot movement, but all it leads to is a tour of the mansion, and another woman for Hap to flirt with. Hap eventually finds himself tied to a chair in a network of tunnels, but his situation turns out to be a dream. With little else transpiring in the film, you’d be forgiven for guessing it might have been shot purely to provide the trailer with some action to entice potential viewers.
But House Of Darkness quickly exhausts the goodwill of that first half hour, and the remainder of its running time effectively reiterates character details LaBute already established: Hap is a self-serving misogynist, and Mina and Lucy’s self-satisfaction is so cryptic and cloying that the film’s conclusion becomes blindingly obvious. If the writer-director’s intention was to create tension, an hour (or more) of LaBute’s Men Are From Mars feminism, which was well-established in his 1997 debut In The Company Of Men, only underscores how little the film actually has on its mind. Arriving only barely at feature length, the film spends eighty minutes setting the table for a meal that takes less than five minutes to eat—which even at this level of budget and creativity feels like breaking out a 100-piece set of fine china for a Happy Meal. And there’s no toy at the end, either.
LaBute maintains the pretense of telling a fable, with gothic title cards declaring “Once upon a time…” before his characters meekly settle into their pre-ordained roles. The choice only adds an unearned layer of condescension, leading to the decidedly underwhelming observation that stories have meaning. Truly, riveting.
Ultimately, House Of Darkness exists in a strange and equally fatal no man’s land of being simultaneously under- and overwritten. As a feature film, it’s entirely insubstantial, with a premise better served in short form as part of an anthology. Particularly since the padded runtime, full of circular dialogue and hollow intrigue, completely deflates the intended impact of its conclusion.
That said, there are certainly worse ways to spend 90 minutes, and House Of Darkness’s rambling diatribes at least manage not to be boring—and are delivered by actors committed to making them work. But there isn’t enough furniture to fill all the rooms in the palace of LaBute’s empty mind—or at least if he’s going to take audiences on a tour, he either needs to get through it quicker, or downgrade to an apartment.