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‘House of Darkness’ Review: A Player Becomes the Prey in Kate Bosworth and Justin Long’s First Date

After writer-director Neil LaBute's long absence from movies, his big-screen comeback flips the dynamic of 'In the Company of Men' for horror crowds.

House of Darkness
Courtesy of Santa Barbara Film Festival

“Silence. Darkness.” Those two words appear up front in most of Neil LaBute’s stageplays, though his latest feature, “House of Darkness,” opens with a more playful “Once Upon a Time …” The film — LaBute’s first in a bumpy seven-year stretch since “Dirty Weekend,” during which the provocateur was abruptly dropped by longtime Off Broadway partner MCC Theater — starts out as a standard hookup scenario and twists into edgier, potentially supernatural “Promising Young Woman” territory. Part cautionary tale, part post-#MeToo ghost story, this sly chamber piece uses silence and darkness to its advantage, allowing audiences’ imaginations to fill in the spaces and shadows of an atypical one-night stand.

It’s pretty clear what Hap Jackson (Justin Long) is hoping will follow when he offers Mina Murray (Kate Bosworth, eerily difficult to read) a ride home from the local bar. Guys like Hap refer to nights like this as “getting lucky,” though he’s almost certain to have a different view of things once this tryst is through. The lucky one here in fact is Mina, whose motives aren’t nearly as apparent — the uncertainty of which drives the sense of creeping dread that percolates over the next hour and a half, depicted practically in real time.

Mina lives in an ominous American castle (Arkansas’ not-at-all-intimidating Dromborg Castle supplied the location, while nighttime exteriors and candlelit parlors give things a fittingly Gothic vibe), and though she claims the two have the place to themselves, Hap keeps catching glimpses of figures at the other end of darkened corridors. But he’s too buzzed and too horny to care, and besides, this clumsy pickup artist isn’t being entirely honest with her either. When Mina asks whether he’s married, Hap offers a cryptic “Not at the moment.” And though he doesn’t overtly pressure her for sex, there’s innuendo in practically everything he says.

A frequent chronicler of power games between the sexes, LaBute excels at this kind of loaded repartee, in which characters communicate their intentions via subtext. The delivery may be too stilted to take at face value, but that’s all the better for keeping audiences guessing. As the evening escalates, Hap becomes more direct in his douchebaggery, even going so far as to hit on Mina’s sister Lucy (Gia Crovatin) after she appears, equally lovely and every bit as enigmatic.

Hap thinks of himself as a “decent guy,” and because Long is such an inherently likable actor, some may give his character the benefit of the doubt. This clearly isn’t his first one-night stand — nor Mina’s, as a pile of men’s loafers seen over the opening and closing credits unsettlingly suggests. But is infidelity enough to justify whatever Mina and her sister(s) have in store? Or is belonging to a gender they consider toxic all it takes? This is where LaBute is shrewd to leave things vague, inviting audiences to project their own reasons on the film’s inevitable reckoning — a horrific payoff that recalls LabBte’s laughable 2006 remake of “The Wicker Man,” only more intentionally funny this time around.

To film audiences, LaBute is probably best known for his blistering 1997 Sundance drama “In the Company of Men,” which depicted the dating game at its most treacherous: Two businessmen set out to seduce and destroy the most vulnerable woman they can find. “House of Darkness” offers a reversal on that dynamic, albeit in a completely different genre. Though the film remains firmly planted in the male POV, LaBute implies that the women have made a similar pact off-screen (Lucy Walters rounds out the trio of vengeful sirens).

“House of Darkness” neatly comments on the newly uncertain dynamics of modern dating, where “decent guys” claim to no longer know how to proceed. The rules are simple: Consent and respect. And yet, players now find themselves on the defensive. What follows will be some men’s worst nightmare, as the conquest turns against them and the seducer becomes the prey. But it could also be a particularly satisfying fable for the opposite sex. After teasing what Mina is up to for more than an hour, the payoff delivers, though it may be too mild to resonate in a world where allegories like “Titane” — or “Tusk,” for that matter, to cite a Justin Long thriller that takes things to far more perverse extremes — now exist.

But the real mystery is why a new Neil LaBute movie doesn’t seem to be on anybody’s radar. Buried among the world premieres at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, the project debuted practically in silence and darkness, suggesting that LaBute (who’s been dabbling in television since the MCC split, creating “Billy & Billie” for DirecTV and “The I-Land” for Netflix) may have lost his cultural cachet. But judging by the result, this wicked little movie suggests his voice may be uniquely suited to the broader conversation.

‘House of Darkness’ Review: A Player Becomes the Prey in Kate Bosworth and Justin Long’s First Date

Reviewed at Santa Barbara Film Festival, March 8, 2022. Running time: 88 MIN.

  • Production: A Saban Films release and presentation of an SSS Entertainment production in association with Hardball Entertainment, Rockhill Studios, SSS Capital, The Syndicate, Contemptible Entertainment, Irving Harvey. Producers: Daryl Freimark, Tim Harms, Neil LaBute, Shaun Sanghani. Executive producers: William V. Bromily, Shanan Becker, Jonathan Saba, Ness Saban, Kerri Elder, Blake Elder, Stephen Morgenstern. Co-producer: Shelley D. Needham.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Neil LaBute. Camera: Daniel Katz. Editor: Bridget Durnford. Music: Adam Bosage.
  • With: Kate Bosworth, Justin Long, Gia Crovatin, Lucy Walters.