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Practically from the moment it hit theaters, Neil LaBute’s 2006 remake of the 1973 British folk horror classic “The Wicker Man” has been largely dismissed as one of the worst movies of our time, and of value only to those who make compilation clips of Nicolas Cage at his most unhinged. Sure, it's no masterpiece. But I confess that I've always had a peculiar affection for how it shows LaBute exploring and at times satirizing the reputation for misogyny he developed over the course of such corrosive explorations of male-female dynamics of “In the Company of Men,” “Your Friends and Neighbors,” and “The Shape of Things,” within the context of a genre that also has its issues along these lines.
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.
Although the film's basic premise—a “nice guy” gets the tables turned on him by a woman with some secrets of her own—may remind some of the absurdly overpraised “Promising Young Woman,” those familiar with LaBute’s filmography may find it works even better as an inverted take on “In the Company of Men.” That film, you will recall, dealt with two businessmen who instigated a cruel competition of seducing the most vulnerable woman they could find and destroying her just for kicks. The dynamic may be the same here but it's interesting how the story is told from the perspective of game's prospective victim; LaBute not only refuses to sympathize with him but seems to take special delight in twisting things even tighter for his hapless hero whenever possible.
Of course, a cinematic chamber play with only "unlikable" characters, and a key plot development that's not exactly a surprise, is perhaps not the kind of film that will grab most audiences. And yet, for those not immediately put off by such things, “House of Darkness” has a number of pleasures, such as the performances from its four main actors (including Lucy Walters in a role I leave for you to discover), LaBute’s flair for dialogue, and the genuinely foreboding atmosphere that LaBute generates despite a presumably fairly low budget. The film may not restore LaBute to the status of cinematic provocateur he enjoyed before the failure of “The Wicker Man.” But "House of Darkness" does demonstrate that he still has some interesting things to say, and some very interesting ways in which to say them.
Now playing in theaters and available on digital platforms on September 13th.