House of Darkness: In the Company of Women, by David Bax
This isn’t as much of a spoiler as it sounds but it’s inevitable that Neil LaBute‘s House of Darkness will earn comparisons to Emerald Fennell‘s Promising Young Woman. I actually had to double check to confirm that House of Darkness‘ male lead, Justin Long, didn’t appear in Fennell’s movie (that would be Adam Brody). LaBute’s film undeniably belongs to that same tradition (see also David Mamet‘s Oleanna) of dialectics about entitled, predatory men overmatched by intellectually formidable women. And any sense that this is supposed to come as a surprise here will evaporate under a couple minutes’ scrutiny by any well-heeled movie watcher. But, even if we understand what is going to happen to Long’s douchy character almost immediately, LaBute provides us with a lot of fun by teasing out the how and the why.
LaBute’s career has taken many surprising turns since he entered the cinema scene with 1997’s In the Company of Men, taking the playwright from self-adaptations to studio comedies to mid-budget thrillers. But House of Darkness, despite being at times a straight up horror movie, has far more in common with his early work than it would seem at first glance. That much is evident in the conversations between Long’s Hap and Kate Bosworth‘s Mina, to whose impressive manor the two return after what we soon gather was a chance first-time meeting at a local bar. There’s a stammering, second-guessing naturalism to their exchanges (at least on Hap’s part) but the discussion is also littered with landmines, unthinkingly sexist comments that disintegrate, along with Hap’s fragile ego, at the slightest questioning.
It’s hard to overstate how crucial an ingredient Bosworth is to the stew here. Intelligent and sultry, it’s as easy to see how easily she would befuddle a business-suited post-fraternity type like Hap but also easy to understand why she’d be too alluring for him to resist, despite the intellectual challenge.
Long is great too. Employing his trademark boyish charms to play a sleazeball makes him, to be honest, a more realistic character than most movie sleazeballs. It is worth mentioning, though, that between this and Tusk, Long is starting to establish a reputation for playing arrogant guys unwittingly drawn into captivity in strangers’ mansions.
Like that 2014 Kevin Smith film, House of Darkness is a horror comedy. Where LaBute has the most fun, though, is teasing us with just what kind of horror we’re watching. The tight ribbon Bosworth wears around her neck is clearly meant to call to mind a particular, ghostly urban legend; the fact that she seems unbothered by changes in the temperature only adds to that impression.
But chilling, evocative shots of dank caves and piles of shoes hint at something else going on. It becomes clear pretty quickly that Hap deserves the comeuppance he’s inevitably going to receive. House of Darkness makes it worth sticking around to learn in what form it will come.