Winner of a Fangoria reader’s contest among new (or at least newish) horror films, “Dark House” gets the prize of a limited theatrical run, opening July 30 in New York, San Francisco and Dallas. The customer isn’t always right, though, as this gimmicky yet essentially routine and increasingly silly slasher pic proves considerably less worthy than such fellow contenders as the unpredictable indie “Pig Hunt” or the 5-year-old Spanish/British Calista Flockhart vehicle “Fragile.” All eight “Fangoria Frightfest” titles will be available through DVD, VOD and download as of Aug. 6 via an exclusive deal with Blockbuster.
Hitherto best known to genre fans for co-writing the 1995 African-American horror omnibus “Tales From the Hood” with director Rusty Cundieff, helmer-scenarist Darin Scott introduces heroine Claire (Meghan Ory) as a young woman haunted by early exposure to real-world horror: the massacre of several children by an insane foster mother, Miss Darrode (Diane Louise Salinger), who then killed herself.
Claire is still plagued by nightmares and panic-attacks 14 years after witnessing those events, so her therapist recommends — as movie shrinks invariably, improbably do — that she return to the site of her original trauma in order to unlock repressed memories. What could be more healing than going back to the site of a horrible murder scene?
An opportunity to do just that in safe company arises when Claire’s entire college drama class is invited to perform as part of new spookhouse attraction from horror impresario (Jeffrey Combs, hamming heavily) — one located, natch, in the since-vacated site of that notorious massacre. (“Dark House’s” portrayal of child abuse in flashbacks is a tad distasteful, because the context is so trivially escapist.)
Naturally, this proves a bad idea. During a preview arranged for visiting journalists, scares created by “the world’s most sophisticated holographic projections” turn into actual violent perils as the malevolent spirit of Bible-thumping ogress Miss Darrode wrests control from the computer mainframe. Soon our protags — a predictable roll call of blonde bimbo, punky girl, token black guy, class clown, horror geek, etc. — are getting wasted for real by phantoms who suddenly have the ability to inflict real harm.
This allows Scott to parade an array of modest gore and CGI terrors, encompassing everything from decapitation, acid, poison gas and an Iron Maiden to zombies and one axe-wielding evil clown. Strangely, given its referential nature, “Dark House” doesn’t have much of a sense of humor; it takes itself all too seriously, to diminishing returns, with a couple of epilogue twists providing mild uptick. Perfs are adequate in one-dimensional roles, packaging aspects pro if unremarkable.
Closing credits sport an offbeat disclaimer: “No religious artifacts and/or texts were damaged or destroyed during the making of this film.”