By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
Neil LaBute’s (Van Helsing, The Wickerman) new film HOUSE OF DARKNESS, which stars Justin Long, Kate Bosworth, Gia Crovatin and Lucy Walters, is part of a unique group (I’m hesitant to use the word “subgenre”) of Dracula films in which the legendary vampire count does not appear. Like Universal’s Daughter of Dracula from 1936 and Hammer’s 1960 followup to Horror of Dracula, The Brides of Dracula, House of Darkness places the king of vampires firmly in the background to concentrate on a story driven by women.
Justin Long (Jeepers Creepers, Tusk) stars as Hap, a philanderous player with a “nice guy” persona who picks up a woman named Mina, played by Kate Bosworth (Black Rock), at a bar. Angling for a one-night stand, Hap drives Mina to her palatial estate where instead of getting lucky, his luck runs out. Soon, it becomes apparent that the couple is not alone in the old dark house.
Neither a comic horror romp like Fright Night nor a brutal and bloody exercise in terror like 30 Days of Night (although the film has moments of humor and intense gore), HOUSE OF DARKNESS resides on the genre spectrum somewhere between those films while taking a decidedly different approach to classic vampire tropes and horror in general. Ostensibly a tale of the three “weird sisters,” Dracula’s vampire brides, who appear in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel as well as many cinematic adaptations, HOUSE OF DARKNESS functions as a low-key origin story for those compelling but briefly mentioned characters and a distinctly 21st century take on them.
However, the vampiric underpinnings of the film are largely set dressing for a complex, dialogue-driven exploration of sexual politics and the subtleties of toxic masculinity. Consequently, HOUSE OF DARKNESS will not be every horrophile’s cup of tea (or glass of blood). Director Neil LaBute and two of the film’s co-stars recently sat down with RUE MORGUE to talk about the film.
Although Neil LaBute has spent his career moving seamlessly from genre to genre in both film and theatre, horror and, specifically, vampires have always held a special place in his life. As with many fans, his love of horror is hereditary.
“I grew up around horror,” LaBute explains. “My mom used to – I think that statute of limitations is probably up on this one – keep me home from school so I could watch Dark Shadows when it was on. And then, she’d make a note and take me to school and say she had car trouble. I mean, that’s a pretty good mom! It was efficacious as well because she loved to be scared. She just liked the bad boys. She liked Barnabas Collins, you know, and all that. So … I got that vibe from her. I love to be scared.”
Despite having worked with LaBute previously on SyFy’s Van Helsing, actress Gia Crovatin, who co-stars as the vampire Lucy (and, incidentally, is LaBute’s spouse) doesn’t share LaBute’s passion for horror. However, a compelling script trumps her aversion to scares every time. This was the case with HOUSE OF DARKNESS.
“[As] a person who’s not a horror lover, I actually really don’t like it. I don’t like to watch it. I don’t like to be scared. I don’t like to be afraid for pleasure, but I was kind of taken with the larger societal message that was in the movie,” Crovatin says. “And as an actor, there’s something so exciting about being plopped in the middle of something and not knowing where it’s going and feeling like, ‘Wait, something’s totally off here. What is going on?’ As I was reading it and not knowing what was happening, I was like, ‘Yeah, I think I have to do this because this is so intriguing.'”
Lucy Walters, who has a brief but memorable role as the third vampire sister, Nora, in the film’s third act, shares her co-star’s attitude when it comes to most horror movies. However, she does have a few favorites that helped inform her performance.
“I’m probably with Gia, I’m a little bit of a scaredy cat when it comes to [horror]. I live in New York, so my life is already white-knuckle! I don’t feel like I need more of that for entertainment,” Walters laughs, “but I will say that I love, love, love, love, love the sort of campier horror films like where it’s not too scary … I love a vintage vampire. I love Daughters of Darkness. Delphine Seyrig is amazing in everything … I love the Herzog Nosferatu. I love the slow, meditative approach to horror.”
Looking back at the recent history of horror, a valid argument could be made that the vampire has become a cliché, its impact as an archetype blunted by nearly a century of pop culture that’s seen Dracula and his bloodsucking brethren go from the ultimate aristocratic monsters to being played for laughs as everything from kids’ cartoons to breakfast cereal mascots. Still, each generation has brought its own socio-political and psychosexual baggage to the trope. Neil LaBute is acutely aware of the vampire’s enduring power as a malleable metaphor and storytelling tool.
“I’ve spent some time specifically with Dracula in the past, [reading] the novel and adapting it for the stage and working on the Van Helsing series. The vampire world is an interesting one to me,” LaBute says. “It’s such a resilient myth that you’re not going to ruin it. So it gives you some courage to say, ‘It’s so sturdy. Let’s go see what we can do with it.’ … We dragged a female actor into Van Helsing not just as Van Helsing but as Dracula. When we finally got to Dracula we hired a woman to play the part as an androgynous character, but it was still a woman playing that part, and I don’t think that’s been done very many times. And you know, the book didn’t disappear. It’s held its own, and people either liked it or they didn’t.
So [with HOUSE OF DARKNESS], I wanted to see what those weird sisters were up to and imagine them sitting around for however long, and now, this is how they deal with men. You start playing with your supper after a while – after, you know, you’ve had 200,000 suppers. You kind of go, ‘What do we do tonight for dinner?’ [laughs] And maybe you start picking off the people who deserve it the most. Those are the kind of fun ideas that we started playing with, and then, you wrap the actors into it, and they all have great ideas about stuff and who they are, and how does Dracula figure into it – if at all. It was fun just to take it and stretch it. It’s kind of like silly putty. It just kind of keeps bending back into shape.”
With Stoker’s novel as a framework, LaBute gave his “weird sisters” wide latitude to develop their characters. As Gia Crovatin explains, part of that was uprooting Dracula‘s Victorian mores for 21st-century realities.
“Neil came to us and said that this was kind of a modern-day Stoker retelling. I did my own background work on Dracula and where it came from and what it represented in the part of Eastern Europe that [vampire myths] came from. So I created a very specific story for Lucy and what had happened to her and her life based on the research that I had done. And then, reading about the three women of the original story, we wanted to bring certain elements, but this is 2022. This is a different time. It’s not exactly the same. And also, we do have a very strong gender theme here in this movie – the politics of gender anyway. It was really important that we have updated and nuanced notions of that as well.”
Lucy Walters also found vampire myths fertile ground for the predator-and-prey gender politics of HOUSE OF DARKNESS. Given the particular problems of the current era, the actress found the film’s complicated approach essential to understanding her role and interpreting the film.
“The vampire world has been around forever, exploring our dark fears and desires. There is something very elegant about it. I like the disturbing, mesmerizing and seductive psychosexual world that this genre lets you explore. I think that the real sensuality of this genre is made all the more complicated as we examine it through a post-#MeToo lens,” Walters says. “I guess I was kind of curious to see what that looks like. I studied theater, and I obviously studied Neil’s work. I was interested to know what he had to say about where we are right now because it’s a super complicated time. A lot of merited rage has been happening in the last several years, but I also think that these things are not black and white. I like writers who are interested in having a conversation but not pinning down a tidy, didactic message. I like the sort of elegant, slow burn of the world that he’s created. I also think there are interesting power dynamics to explore. Justin’s character is really shitty but not that shitty in the realm of shitty men. So who is the real deal in this scenario? That makes it more ambiguous in some ways. I liked that.”
Sexual politics aside, the vampire sisters of HOUSE DARKNESS, with their centuries of accumulated knowledge, stand in stark contrast to the superficiality of Justin Long’s consummate fibber, Hap. That the film is a reaction to the banality of 21st-century Western life is unavoidable, a point that was not lost on Crovatin.
“I think it’s a critique of people who are on social media who are needing immediate validation. And if [they] don’t get a ‘like,’ what does that mean? And how’s my mental health doing if that doesn’t happen? There’s such a narcissism that feels like it’s very apparent and on the surface, but also there feels like there’s like a deepening of awareness of the psyche, and I think both of those things are in the movie,” she says. “We’re so evolved, and we’ve lived so long … how are we doing this as human beings? We’ve got to find a different way to communicate and to really be honest with one another.”
However, LaBute is much more direct in his assessment of the film’s theme, especially in terms of Justin Long’s character. “I think [the film] speaks to a certain type of person – often a male who is very comfortable in their world [and] in their power, and what they think they’re owed, and what they think they can get,” says LaBute. “The fun of that was to go into this knowing that there are so many red flags going off, and yet this guy walks into the house in a way that a woman probably never would. I think right down to the end, it’s fun to watch him. He shows his true colors. He gets angry. For a long time, Justin can ride on that boyish charm that he has, and take the edge off some of my lines. But, you know, when he starts to show who he really is, even then, he feels pretty much like he’s in control – even when the odds are against him. You know, he’s like, ‘You know what? I’ll smack you if you give me any problem. Okay, I’m leaving.’ Right until the last moments, this guy feels as if he physically is in charge of the situation. And I think that’s a very male trait, so it’s fun to tweak that but tweak it in a way that, when you’re using horror, anything can happen. So you’re kind of freed up to let the miraculous takeover. That was fun.”
HOUSE OF DARKNESS from Saban Films is available to stream now digital and on-demand.