Neil LaBute made his name first as a playwright then as a film-maker interested in exploring the codes of masculinity, some suddenly toxic, some still holding up OK(ish), in a culture that seemed to have moved on faster than some men were able to.
In the Company of Men (1997) and Your Friends & Neighbours (1997) were his first two movies and are still sources of high-octane neat LaBute, if that’s what you’re after. He’s broadened his range and taken on gun-for-hire jobs in the interim but again and again returns to this same question of the male in trouble.
Which brings us to House of Darkness, a tale of beta-male overreach enabled by the codes of jockish masculinity and starring Justin Long as a guy who’s just picked up a hot girl at a bar, and Kate Bosworth as said girl.
The film opens with them arriving back at her place. He’s driven her there, drunk, because he thinks he’s on to a sure thing, and she’s certainly making all the right noises as they sit out in the car. She’s a strange looking woman for the 21st century, dressed in a long white dress that goes all the way to the floor and with long blond hair tumbling all the way down her back, Rapunzel-like.
LaBute has opened the film with a “Once Upon a Time” intertitle but this is anything but a tale of a brave prince coming to save a fair maiden. As they move from car to cosy interior, it’s more a story of a babbling, nervous horndog out of his depth and a woman whose come-hither pouts begin, after a while to seem increasingly predatory.
She lives in a house so big he jokes it’s a castle. His name is Hap, short for Hapgood, but Hapless is obviously what LaBute means. Her name is Mina Murray, which is what Mina Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula was called before she married Jonathan Harker. Mina was buried all in white.
Can you guess where this is going? LaBute drops plenty of clues. When they kiss she bites his lip and then relishes licking the blood as it wells. He’s loving it, his dick driving him onwards towards the inevitable.
Vampire stories usually feature strong male figures and wispy female victims. LaBute turns the tables but keeps most of the other elements in place. The looks are gothic, the score (by Adam Bosarge) tiptoes into the same territory, a tinkle on the ivories here, a swell of strings there.
That said, this isn’t a particularly cinematic movie. LaBute is more a words than images director, and really always writes for the stage. It’s easy to imagine Hap and Mina in a small theatre somewhere, or even on the radio.
If you’ve seen Kevin Smith’s nightmarish comedy Tusk, you’ll have seen Justin Long in serious trouble once before and he is very good at this sort of thing – a guy who’s learned the lingo but hasn’t got the follow-through. Bosworth vamps like one of the witches of Eastwick, and later, when she’s joined by her sister, Lucy (another name lifted from Bram Stoker), so does Gia Crovatin as another blonde, faintly terrifying “sister”. Even later, very briefly, Lucy Walters joins Bosworth and Crovatin for a “when shall we three meet again” finale.
It’s a simple, elegant film in many respects, designed to make us feel nervous on behalf of the none-too-bright, entirely-out-of-his-depth Hap. Job done. Sympathise, that’s a different matter altogether and there’s a bit of a hole where Hap’s character should be. And for all LaBute’s turning of the tables, Mina isn’t over-burdened with personality either.
By the time Hap realises what’s going on in this big, old, remote gothic museum of a building, it’s way too late. The scales fall from his eyes. They fell from our eyes within minutes of the film cranking into gear. For all its strengths and its odd weakness, this is the film’s real problem. Premature ejaculation. How very apt.
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