Justin Long is having a hell of a week in horror. Not only does he appear in the big release of the week, Barbarian (playing an absolute douche), he also takes center stage in the second release by writer/director Neil LaBute in as many weeks, House of Darkness, a sly, pandemic-era production set in a single location with only a handful of actors. The film opens with Long’s Hap pulling up to the rather palatial home of Kate Bosworth’s Mina. We find out that they met that night at a club, and he is giving her a ride home. But when she invites him in, he begins to believe this night has taken a turn in his favor. She spends most of the early part of their conversation being playful, flirtatious, bordering on seductive, but she’s also questioning everything he says about the kind of person he is, keeping him at a distance as she also pulls him closer—it’s a fantastic and irresistible dynamic.
LaBute keeps us (and Hap) on our toes by making Hap think he hears and sees things in the dark and cavernous house. At one point when Mina leaves the room to make them drinks, Hap takes a call from one of his work buddies and breaks from his polite and slightly nervous ways to show his true bro colors as he discusses the night that is about to transpire and just how hot Mina is; the call is all we need to hope that things go south for Hap. After a drink or two, the flirting begins to get more direct and physical, and just when things turn serious, Mina’s sister Lucy (Gia Crovatin, who also appears LaBute’s other current film, Out of the Blue) shows up out of nowhere (the fact that the two sisters’ names are Mina and Lucy should have tipped me off that something was shifty). Rather than leave the new couple alone, Lucy offers to take Hap on a tour of the rest of the house, and he immediately starts to see the night going a slightly different way, this time involving both sisters, at least in his mind. But we already have some idea that it’s the sisters who are calling the shots this night.
As the night goes on, we learn bits and pieces about Hap and his moral code. He’s married but separated, so it’s cool that he’s spending evenings in a club, picking up strange women. He’s much slicker in his own mind than he is in real life, especially when he’s been drinking. It’s a little unclear when things take a turn for the worse, but it’s probably somewhere between Hap nodding off and having a horrific dream and the arrival of the third sister, Nora (Lucy Walters), who is a bit more direct than her siblings and has no issues telling Hap what a loathsome tool he is. Mina is a creator of games, Lucy is a gifted storyteller, and Nora strength may simply be shooting from the hip.
House of Darkness is a slight but sly and sinister effort from LaBute that really only works because his actors are so good at keeping things a mystery. I wish the payoff and the overall point of the movie was a bit more pronounced and biting, but what happens in the end isn’t exactly low-key. At this point, it’s safe to declare Long one of the true kings of playing on-screen a-holes; he makes it look effortless, and even his most subtle jerk behavior is pretty noticeable and glorious.
But Bosworth is the real standout here. Between this film and her recent performance in The Immaculate Room (and the upcoming The Enforcer), I’ve really grow to appreciate her talent and her range. Her playful and vaguely menacing turn here is so much fun, and I’ll eagerly admit I’d fall for it too, even if I suspected danger was in the air. Admittedly when new characters are added to the Bosworth-Long dance, I got a little bummed out because I was so curious where that pair would have gone if this film was just about them. Still, House of Darkness works as a curious, sometimes-tense acting exercise above all else, and since I’m a collector of great performances, I’ll take it, despite the film’s shortcomings.
The film is now playing in theaters and will be available on digital and On Demand on September 13.
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