"House of Darkness" blends Neil LaBute's talkiness with real-life and supernatural horror

House of Darkness (2022)

Willfully cynical filmmaker Neil LaBute is back to his old playwright tricks. Much like “Some Velvet Weekend” and “Dirty Weekend,” he puts together two actors to not only watch men behave badly but to see how the gender dynamics shift. Men may be from Mars, but what if women were from…Transylvania? With “House of Darkness,” LaBute slides more into genre, specifically the trappings of Hammer Horror in a gothic castle, while keeping the material deliberately stagy and the verbal chess moving (often in circles). It might sound reductive to essentially call “House of Darkness” a #MeToo horror film, but it’s not an inaccurate summation, either.

Hap (Justin Long) picks up the mysterious Mina (Kate Bosworth) at a bar, although they don’t even get each other’s names until later in the night. He drives her home to her isolated estate that’s been in her family for years, and she invites him in for a drink. Mina tells Hap that her dark, old “castle” tends to play tricks on the mind, and the electricity immediately goes out (which, as she also assures, happens a lot). Have no fear, she makes them a fire and gets them each a drink, while Hap calls a friend to brag about his conquest. When Mina returns, she catches Hap in a lie, but their conversation continues. As they kiss, Mina’s sister, Lucy (Gia Crovatin), interrupts, and she’s even more blunt. While Mina takes an awfully long time to play bartender again and Lucy asks Hap to tell them a ghost story, the mood completely changes. Will Hap learn a much-needed lesson?

As written and directed by LaBute, “House of Darkness” is a talky but intriguing chamber piece, an extended fireside conversation in one location. Shot with controlled simplicity by Daniel Katz, it begins as a two-hander before multiplying that number by two (there’s a third sister named Nora, played by Lucy Walters). Presented up as a macabre “once upon a time” tale about the predator becoming the prey, it doesn’t even pretend that Hap will get his happy ending (ironic, eh?). We weren’t born yesterday as to what game is being played here (if you know, you know the names of the women are a dead giveaway), so it’s obvious where this is headed before it even gets there. The joke, however, is on Hap, not us. Neither Hap nor Mina are forthright enough about their intentions, but we know what each of them wants, and luckily (at least for some viewers), the fun will be in getting to that inevitable payoff. And, after a drawn-out, albeit mostly captivating, wind-up of teasing, the payoff is a quick eruption of just desserts that still manages to satisfy. 

Justin Long has to be a really good sport (or a masochist?), as many a role has required his character to squirm and be tortured. Besides being used for his peepers, watching his doomed girlfriend get dragged to hell, and even getting turned into a walrus, he portrays the same smarmy bro (only mildly less so) as he does in the concurrently released “Barbarian.” Long, convincing as a possibly decent guy who could really be a misogynist and a bad liar, and Kate Bosworth (who are now a real-life couple) have a comfortable feel for the loaded, tit-for-tat rhythm of the dialogue. As Mina, Bosworth relishes in being more straightforward than Long’s Hap and being fifty steps ahead of him, and Gia Crovatin is equally as sharp and more than capable of keeping up with the deadpan barb-trading as Lucy.

As a cinematic power play in gender games, “House of Darkness” doesn’t break any new ground with what LaBute wants to say about manners between men and women. But if one is familiar with the filmmaker’s oeuvre, this is a seductively playful and darkly amusing exercise while it lasts. LaBute does get to the old-fashioned genre goods eventually, and everything before the punchline, complete with geysers of blood and prosthetics, may be enough, or it won’t be. For fans of movies where characters share chitchat, drinks, and spit, being baited by Mr. LaBute will be a wicked pleasure.

Grade: B -

Saban Films released “House of Darkness” (89 min.) in theaters September 9, 2022 and on demand and digital September 13, 2022.