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Review: 'House of Darkness' - Dropping in on Dracula's Daughters

Kurt Loder on

Spooky-house movies have been a go-to genre for scrappy low-budget filmmakers at least since James Whale's 1932 "The Old Dark House" (one of the four horror pictures Whale made at Universal: he also directed the first two "Frankenstein" films and "The Invisible Man" -- itself recently overhauled as a really scary horror-house movie by Leigh Whannell).

The setup for these pictures -- using houses, customarily places of refuge, as unexpected headquarters for the awful things of the outside world as well -- has continued to mess with viewers' heads for decades. Many of these movies have been little more than cheapjack jump-scare machines (I'm not a fan of the 1979 "Amityville Horror," not least because of the fraudulent "true story" on which it's based), but others, like Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 "Psycho" (made for well under $1 million), have been wonderfully terrifying.

The lure of the low budget, with its promise of greater creative freedom, continues to attract ambitious first-time feature directors, among them actor Dave Franco -- who recently slid over into the director's chair for "The Rental," a sort of slasher-house movie set on the foggy coast of Oregon -- and enterprising comedy guy Zach Cregger, currently having his way with critics with "Barbarian," which deploys its shocks in one of the cruddier districts of Detroit.

The risk in pursuing one's love of old-school B-movies is that if you cleave too faithfully to the bare-bones ethos of the form, you could wind up with nothing more than a tedious, old-school B-movie, which should definitely not be your goal.

This is what appears to have happened with "House of Darkness," a riff on the Dracula mythos by writer-director Neil LaBute, a veteran filmmaker who's probably still best known for the gnarly men-are-pigs movie "In the Company of Men," or maybe as the creator of the Dracula-adjacent SyFy series "Van Helsing." LaBute shot "House of Darkness" in Arkansas (for the tax breaks, as he cheerfully admits in the movie's production notes) in just 11 days (mostly nights, actually). The story repurposes the three thirsty "brides of Dracula" from Bram Stoker's original novel and its subsequent cinematic iterations and sets an unlucky modern-day business bro down among them.

The coyly named women (sisters here) are Mina (Kate Bosworth), Lucy (Gia Crovatin) and Nora (Lucy Walters); the unlucky guy is Hap Jackson (Justin Long). As the story gets underway, Hap is driving Mina home from the bar where he picked her up (or vice versa), and we see them pulling up in front of Mina's family manse - an actual castle, remotely located on a vast stretch of forestland. (This place is real: it was built by a wealthy married couple in the environs of Fayetteville, and the movie is basically a guided tour of its premises - which eventually creates a "Last Year at Marienbad" effect of expensive visual tedium, even in a picture with only an 88-minute runtime.

 

Justin Long holds the movie together with his easy likability, and he has some good back-and-forth with Kate Bosworth in the beginning, when her Mina is subtly needling him about... well, about being a man, and thus a liar and a cheat. Unfortunately, the structure of the script compels Long to mostly absorb this abuse and then deliver a series of comments to Mina that basically constitute a strained monologue. The movie takes on some extra layers with the appearance of Mina's two sisters, but they don't really contribute a lot to the proceedings, beyond more unnecessary talk, and the accumulation of dead dramatic space becomes wearying.

The movie commits one of the great sins in films of this sort -- leading us into a rousing, full-on horror scene, set in the castle's basement -- and then suddenly yanking us out of it to be informed that what we've just seen was only a dream. It's surprising that a dramatist as experienced as LaBute (who's also a playwright) would opt for this sort of corny cheat rather than simply working up some actual horror to be part of the story. Just a thought.

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Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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