Producers: Daryl Freimark, Tim Harms, Neil LaBute and Shaun Sanghani   Director: Neil LaBute   Screenplay: Neil LaBute   Cast: Kate Bosworth, Justin Long, Gia Crovatin and Lucy Walters   Distributor: Saban Films

Grade: B

Playwright/filmmaker Neil LaBute has combined his proclivity for dramatizing the cruel plots men and women inflict on one another with horror tropes before—most notably in his woefully misconceived remake of “The Wicker Man” in 2006.  He employs the mixture to far better effect in this unsettling little drama, which also comments mordantly on today’s dating proprieties.

Hap Jackson (Justin Long), some sort of financial analyst, has struck up a conversation with Mina Murray (Kate Bosworth), a beautiful, coolly mysterious woman, at a bar and offered her a ride home.  When they reach her remote estate—an imposing castle-like structure—he stops the car and engages in some small talk, obviously hoping to be invited in for a nightcap.  She toys with him for a bit before suggesting he come in.

Hap thinks he’s hit the jackpot.  When she goes off to make drinks and he’s alone in a posh reception room that’s warmed by a blaze in the fireplace (also lighted by it, since the power has suddenly fizzled out), he calls a friend to tell him of his good fortune, practically salivating over how the night might go.  But he’s also unnerved by a vague suspicion that there’s somebody else in the house.

When Mia returns, the two engage in verbal sparring over deception, with Hap finally admitting that he was on the phone, and that he’s separated from his wife.  But that doesn’t stop her from aggressively getting intimate.  Their passion, however, is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Mia’s sister Lucy (Gia Crovatin), an equally attractive, equally stately woman who offers Hap a tour of the house.  Matters get spookier, though, as she expresses an interest in ghost stories, especially since Hap has already dozed off and had a nightmare in which he’d been bound to a chair in a frightening cavern and injured himself in an attempt to escape.

The cast of characters increases with the arrival of Nora (Lucy Walters), a third sister whose demeanor is even more chilly and imperious than that of Mia and Lucy.  Things get so frightening for the stressed-out visitor that he decides to leave.  The women have other ideas.

LaBute has commented that the inspiration for “House of Darkness” was the “three weird sisters” episode of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” played like a fable (it begins with the caption “Once Upon a Time” and ends with another, more ironic, reading “And They All Lived Happily Ever After”), and Hap Jackson can be seen as a horny modern version of Jonathan Harker, looking to cash in on what he sees as a chance for some steamy pleasure with a voluptuous woman and finding their roles switched when she’s suddenly tripled. 

The result is one of LaBute’s patented tales of the dark and dangerous sexual games played by men and women both, dressed up in the conventions of the horror genre.  The ending may disappoint in its over-easy resorting to gore, and the nightmare sequence might seem a pretty obvious bid for shock effect, but as is the usual case with the writer, the dialogue has bite, and Long’s performance captures the journey of a man initially lustful but nervous who travels by degrees to genuine terror; the women, by contrast, are all smoothly smug and crisp, lovely but lethal, with Bosworth effectively filling the role of ultimate femme fatale.  And while the budget might have been low, the atmosphere of the Arkansas-shot picture is genuinely lurid and creepy, thanks to an able crafts team including production designer Mitchell Crisp and cinematographer Daniel Katz.  Editor Bridget Durnford keeps things running smoothly, and Adam Bosage’s score adds to the unnerving mood.

LaBute’s recent attempt to bring his peculiar touch to film noir with “Out of the Blue” failed to impress, but it works significantly better when applied to the haunted-house template here.  And the very theatricality of the approach, with its limited setting and ripe diction, proves a much more effective means of realizing his goals than the more expansive, ostensibly “realistic” devices of “The Wicker Man.”  “House of Darkness” is smaller in scope, but while not entirely satisfying it represents another sharp commentary by LaBute on the changing mores of sexual gamesmanship—and a provocative one.