House of Darkness had its UK première at Grimmfest
Although, back in 1997, writer/director Neil LaBute’s provocative feature debut In The Company of Men made him an instant enfant terrible of the indie/arthouse circuit, it was also a horror film hiding in plain sight. For even if it did not come with any of the usual effects or grand guignol, trappings or tropes, of a full-blown genre picture, at its centre was an act of extremely calculated cruelty against a woman, orchestrated by a monster of masculine entitlement who maintains to the bitter end his entirely unruffled alpha status, while leaving all the devastating consequences to a beta male colleague who, though compromised by complicity, is ultimately cursed by his own moral compass. In other words, it was a horror where the casually life-destroying, ultimately triumphant sociopath at its dark heart was American patriarchy itself, rolling over all who fail to fall into line with its predatory whims. LaBute has made many features since, including the horror remake The Wicker Man (2006) – but his latest, House of Darkness, is both an undisguised and original horror, while also updating the themes from In The Company of Men to the post-#MeToo Generation.
Two elements at the very start of House of Darkness colour everything that follows with immense unease. The first is the opening wide shot of a dark, stone-walled cave with, on the floor at the centre, a pile of objects whose precise identity is not yet apparent. The second is an intertitle in red, ornately framed (also in red) as though a frontispiece from a storybook, stating, “Once upon a time…”. Later the character Mina (Kate Bosworth) will suggest that her pickup for the night Hap Jackson (Justin Long) introduce his own story with the same words, insisting, “All good stories start, ‘Once upon a time…’” – but this story has already started, and its two principal characters, who gravitated towards each other while on the prowl in a bar, have been framed from the outset as the leads in a grim(m) fairytale.
Hap cannot quite believe his luck, even if it is inscribed, like a kind of destiny, in his very forename, Hapgood in full, which he has inherited from a long line of men in the family who shared it. Hap may have made the first drunken move on Mina, but she was unexpectedly receptive to his clumsy overture, and happily accepted his offer to drive her home. That home is, as Hap observes, more like a ‘castle’ – a towering old manor house, far from Hap’s usual urban environment, in the middle of nowhere. Here the electrics may work at best intermittently, but that just means that there are plenty of blazing open fires and candles to complement the abundant drinks on offer and to enhance the romantic mood. Hap knows he is already in with more than a mere chance, and yet there is something also finding its way through all his tipsiness and priapic energy, and making him slightly ill at ease.
Perhaps it is, as even Hap is quick to recognise, the disarming improbability of an intelligent, beautiful, wealthy woman like Mina making herself so readily available to a man obviously way beneath her league. Or perhaps it is the very strangeness of her seduction, and her unsettling insistence on honesty. Or perhaps it is the things that Hap imagines he hears – and even sees – among the house’s flickering shadows. Of course our Prince Charming comes with plenty of his own red flags, and is a little too keen to establish his credentials as a considerate, attentive partner. “I’m one of the good guys,” he tells Mina, with neither of them quite seeming to believe his words, as though they have both seen Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (2020). But Mina is setting off alarm bells too, and in this fireside game of courtship, it looks as though only one player is likely to live happily ever after.
Here Long’s sleazy business consultant is a direct descendant of the corporate middle managers from In The Company of Men. A low-level liar who openly admits his own propensity for fibbing, and an old-school lothario at sea in a new world where feminism has rewritten the rules, Hap seems more horny fool than horned he-devil, and Long expertly humanises his every flaw – but through a series of flirtatious questions and provocations, Mina (Bosworth perfectly blurring allure and menace) will ever so gradually expose her suitor’s dark side, and reveal the true purpose of their assignation, and the kind of story they are really writing together. Scripted with elegance and performed with nuance, House of Darkness is where male privilege finds edgy accommodation from a vindictive sisterhood – and this increasingly vicious clinch of the sexes yields nightmarish Holocaust imagery alongside more conventional, if partly modernised, gothic furnishings. It is smart, sly and insidious, and might just leave viewers arguing over just who is the bad guy, even if all the signs are there. Meanwhile there is a real-life happy ending, as Bosworth and Long are now a couple…
Strap: Neil LaBute’s gothic romance pits a courting couple in a shadowy castle for an unnerving battle of the sexes
© Anton Bitel