Neil LaBute’s House of Darkness has the stamina of an anthology segment stretched to quadruple the length. What’s teased is infinitely more fascinating than this macabre “once upon a time,” which turns out to be a series of interrogations that jog exhaustively in place. Justin Long continues to eradicate his typecasting with another despicable misogynist role (Barbarian apparently wasn’t enough), but House of Darkness wastes its gender-oppression aggression. Where Josh Ruben’s Scare Me soars thanks to tension delivered through imaginative monologues, LaBute’s latest is mostly benign chatter that rambles its way to an unimpressively expected conclusion.
Long’s “Hap” thinks he’s getting lucky after driving the angelic Mina (Kate Bosworth) back to her proclaimed seasonal estate. Mina invites her date-for-the-night inside, pours another whiskey and begins grilling Hap while sneaking sly kisses. Hap’s overwhelmed by the position and plays “nice guy” in the hopes of scoring, but admits he’s a bit of a fibber. Mina preys upon his momentary weakness: The two begin verbally sparring as Hap gets drunker, and Mina provokes another outwardly presented white knight. Hap plays along while intercourse is still on the table (in his mind), but how long will Hap allow Mina to tease him with naughty inquisitions?
LaBute’s chamber thriller erects gothic Hammer Films architectures as Mina welcomes Hap into a candelabra-adorned mansion with electrical shortages and Victorian furniture. House of Darkness greets viewers with a haunted mansion aesthetic and dimly lit libraries, so Hap can squint down blackened hallways at barely decipherable figures. Cinematographer Daniel Katz does most of the talk-a-thon’s heavy lifting, capturing Hap’s movement from one antique couch to the next curvaceous seating arrangement. It’s all heavily atmospheric, yet insincerely cosmetic, given how LaBute’s screenplay is thinner than notebook paper scribbled with better horror movie outlines.
What a waste of Long and Bosworth, who tiptoe around dating culture minefields in an excruciating and anemic screenplay that—despite vampiric undertones—lacks bite. House of Darkness elongates its genre foreplay to an almost humorous degree while whiffing the intentional comedy of Hap’s two-faced pickup artist making an intoxicated fool of himself. LaBute intends to torture Hap for his hookup expectations after Mina invites him inside, nibbles his lip and situationally edges the horny bro in lawyer’s clothing—but his audience gets it worse. Bosworth is adept at preying upon the male ego’s one-track motivations, and the film’s first half sustains Mina’s arousing imprisonment of Long’s shifty potential partner. That’s before a dream sequence derails its momentum and causes us to fantasize about the narrative we’d rather explore.
As Hap and Mina banter, interjections from Mina’s sisters Lucy (??Gia Crovatin) and Nora (Lucy Walters) only prolong the inevitable. Mina disappears to fix one more drink—Lucy substitutes as a new conversational focus, and Hap spills more of his unearned confidence. LaBute fails when retreading Hap’s futile coercive tactics at even the snowball’s chance in hell of threesome possibilities, which leads to an entire midsection that could be stricken without structural impairment. House of Darkness would be just as impactful at a mere 45 minutes, where Hap’s fabled encounter cuts to the oversold chase infinitely quicker. Gut anything outside the introductory establishment (exposing phony gentlemen with sexual frustration) and the film’s eventual horror-focused finale. Everything else feels repetitive and unrewarding—a paltry social commentary that lacks wits.
House of Darkness cheats its audience out of a feature experience while still existing at a full feature’s length. Long and Bosworth drown in a sea of back-and-forth exchanges that swim tireless circles around the ever-evident and unsubtle point. What starts as a promising exploration of romance’s lurking monsters eventually talks itself blue in the face, babbling and gawking like we’re not 70 steps ahead. LaBute has a misfire on his hands with House of Darkness, a film that ineptly paces itself into an early grave—or, one that doesn’t come nearly early enough. Recognizing that might have transformed House of Darkness into the short story the narrative deserves.
Director: Neil LaBute
Writer: Neil LaBute
Starring: Justin Long, Kate Bosworth, Gia Crovatin
Release Date: September 13, 2022
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.