With his latest film, “House of Darkness,” LaBute tries something similar to “The Wicker Man.” And while the results may not be nearly as outlandish this time around, they do make for an intriguing and occasionally quite witty battle of the sexes, in which not all of the bloodshed is strictly metaphorical.
As the film opens, a car with a couple inside approaches a large house in the middle of nowhere. Hap (Justin Long) and Mina (Kate Bosworth) met earlier that night in a bar in the city, and because he’s a “decent guy,” Hap has volunteered to drive Mina home out of the alleged goodness of his heart. But it’s fairly obvious that he’s hoping the evening will end with something more than a pat on the head, as it were. Mina does invite him in but it’s quickly apparent that guys like Hap are not unfamiliar to her; she has a way of twisting virtually every line of his smugly complacent patter on him, always leaving him on the defensive. And yet, Hap is so confident of player abilities that he continues his ostensibly low-pressure pursuit. Even after the point where she asks him if he’s married, and he stumbles over the answer as badly as possible.
Between the drinks already in his system (which didn’t stop him from driving her home), the glass of Maker’s Mark in his hand, and the focus on getting Mina into bed, it doesn’t quite register to Hap that the situation he’s in is even stranger that it appears. For starters, the house—one of several that Mina claims her family owns—is literally a castle that practically oozes Gothic atmosphere wherever one turns. There’s also the fact that, despite Mina’s insistence they are alone, there are also noises and movements that suggest that someone (or something …) else is lurking in the darkness caused by the faulty electricity. This is partially explained by the sudden appearance of Lucy (Gia Crovatin), Mina’s sister, but odd things continue to happen as the night goes on. Not that Hap notices—at one point, he makes a sort-of pass at Lucy while Mina is away for a few minutes even though many horndogs—at least those with a literary bent—might have picked up on the hint suggested by their respective names and at least tried to flee the premises.
There is a twist in the final act but LaBute’s screenplay doesn’t really build to it in a conventional manner, and most viewers will have figured it out well before the half-hour mark. In a way, it serves as a sort of companion piece to his previous feature, last month’s neo-noir “Out of the Blue,” in how that story plays with genre conventions by all but announcing the arrival of a big twist and then deliberately stretches out the time until he finally deploys it in the expected manner. In “Out of the Blue,” the conceit doesn’t work because it’s frankly impossible to believe the main character didn’t see what was in store for him even though he professed to be knowledgeable in the trappings of noir storytelling. But the gambit works this time around, as Hap is so fundamentally clueless to what’s going on that he doesn’t even recognize the kind of story that he’s really in until it’s literally breathing down his neck (so to speak), inspiring some darkly humorous moments.