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Release Date: 08/13/22 [Cinemas/VOD]

Genre: Comedy/Horror/Mystery

Studio: Saban Films

"Justin Long and Kate Bosworth star in this seductive thriller from director Neil LaBute (The Wicker Man). 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."


“Once Upon a Time”

A car approaches a luxurious but dated estate. Inside the vehicle are two passengers, a man, and a woman, who glance and smile at each other. They talk about this and that, fumbling through first-date paces. The man (Justin Long) looks confident that his evening’s entertainment has yet to unfold; he beams at the beautiful woman (Kate Bosworth) as she invites him inside for a drink. This set-up has been filmed multiple times in cinema. But the opening scene of House of Darkness makes it feel like the first time. It takes a while for them even to leave the vehicle and go inside. 


Filmmaker Neil Labute has done something rather extraordinary here. House of Darkness, his first feature film in years, offers a flavor of suspense that I feel is sorely lacking in many contemporary horror films. Once the man and woman get inside, he sees a figure in a dark hallway, a figure he can’t quite discern as truly there or not. Unfortunately, or perhaps, fortunately, we forget that he saw anything. We became entranced as the man and woman barrel through dialogue. It becomes a dance of words as the man (Long) tiptoes around the truth from the woman. He finally reveals his name as Hap (short for Hapley), which he confesses is a very antiquated name. Mina (Bosworth) is convinced she has met a Hap or two in her lifetime.


Mina and Hap jab at each other with flirtatious eyes and verbal subtext;  we come to understand just what Hap wants out of Mina. However, what winds the clock of the runtime is deciphering what exactly Mina wants out of him. We suppose the simple truth as Hap continuously dodges or half-answers honest questions thrown his way, such as “Are you married?” or “Were you on the phone? I heard you speaking to someone.”


Before I knew it, the film was halfway over, and the bulk of the story was occupied by the two characters jousting words around the living room. This pace kept me engrossed the entire time. House of Darkness is a horror film, albeit by association with the supernatural. It parallels the dangers of dating in a web of lies. There isn’t a big comeuppance (relatively speaking) that would be provided by films such as the Saw franchise. But the pay-off settles nearer the territory of Promising Young Woman, traversing the morality landscape. 


Hopefully, Neil Labute doesn’t elect to take another large gap in his projects because he is on fire here. The set designs are masterfully lit. I won’t spoil certain set pieces because to do so would spill the movie’s secrets. Characters are blocked and framed to induce anxiety and claustrophobia subtly. Speaking of characters, both Mina and Hap (and some other characters that appear later) are not especially memorable or fun. Thankfully, Long and Bosworth approached the written material with nuance and spark that still had me caring about them. Depending on who you ask, Quentin Tarantino owns the monopoly on snappy film dialogue. I would argue that Labute is punching at that same weight class. The film is short at only 88 minutes, but the words smartly push the film to a gear higher than expected. 


House of Darkness is not a hard film to figure out. There are a lot of breadcrumbs planted to telegraph what happens next. The ending is the weakest part, not that it was terrible, but the finale made me miss how great the first 95 percent of the film was. I walked away from House of Darkness entertained and satisfied. The first half was a blur due to the sharpness of the script, creative direction, and conviction of the actors. In case no one said so, that is a good thing.

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