The thing about Nice Guys is that they’re usually just Guys Who Tell Themselves They’re Nice. And for some reason, Justin Long has been tapped to demonstrate that distinction in two separate horror movies that just happen to have been released on the same day this month. Barbarian has turned into an unexpected buzzy hit, with word-of-mouth promising a twist you won’t want spoiled (mostly true!), while House of Darkness went from limited release straight to VOD with little fanfare. The two movies may share a genre but they have almost nothing else in common — except for Justin Long, playing complementary versions of the Nice Guy who maybe isn’t so nice after all. On its own, House of Darkness is a fine enough flick, competent in its vision and execution courtesy of writer/director Neil LaBute, but that quirk of casting and timing truly is the most interesting thing about it.
That coincidence also serves as a powerful reminder that Justin Long is a genuine Scream King. Many of us first discovered Long in 2001’s Jeepers Creepers (before learning that it was directed by a convicted pedophile), and though his career quickly made the jump to more friendly fare with comedies like Dodgeball and those Mac vs PC commercials, Long has consistently found his way back to horror in films like Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell and Kevin Smith’s Tusk (with Smith recently hinting that a sequel is on the way, one that would find Long’s character transition from victim to perpetrator). As a performer, Long’s pocket seems to be as a transformative everyman — handsome enough to play popular, funny enough to play the underdog, the kind of guy you’d buy as the bullied or the bully — and this month’s pair of films put his persona in a new, sinister light. In Barbarian, Long plays a canceled actor named A.J. who refutes up and down that he did anything wrong to anyone, ever. A.J. does some genuinely awful things with the absolute certainty that he’s justified but misunderstood — a lie he invests in for his own peace of mind as much as for others. He believes he’s the victim long before he stepped into that AirBnB murder basement, and his self-deception is a theme the whole film hangs on. By comparison, Long’s character Hap in House of Darkness is perhaps closer to the person A.J. thinks of himself as, but is he actually an innocent victim? Or is he still just a Guy Who Tells Himself He’s Nice?
“Be honest,” Mina (Kate Bosworth) repeatedly commands Hap during their long night together in House of Darkness, and for much of the runtime it’s that honesty that provides the film’s only hint of tension. Being honest means departing from the familiar omissions and half-truths of dating, those piles of sweet nothings you say to get in someone’s pants. And sometimes it even means forcing Hap to confront his own rose-tinted self-deceptions and acknowledge the awkward truths he’d rather avoid. When asked point blank if he’s married, for example, Hap tries to deny and dodge until he finally admits that he’s separated (though not divorced). If honesty is the barrier for entry into Mina’s world, then it’s a barrier that’s set to snap shut behind him as Hap unknowingly tells on himself in pursuit of a good time.
Too bad, then, that it’s such a slog to watch. The film is a riff on Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” that concerns itself solely with his Brides, here imagined as three sort-of sisters who seduce and drain men in a series of derelict mansions around the country. Its inspiration is the sort of spoiler that the trailer eagerly reveals, even though the penny drops far later in the film — like, at the very end. Billed as a horror-comedy, House of Darkness isn’t particularly funny or scary, though that seems like a marketing problem more than an issue with the film itself. While I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it, I do think LaBute succeeded in using the trappings of horror to thoughtfully upend the power dynamics of hooking up. We meet Hap as he drives Mina to her home from a bar, and what follows is an awkward two-step of desire as Hap cautiously probes Mina’s interest in taking things further — or is it Mina who hints at an invitation and waits for Hap to verbalize it? The dread is palpable as Hap walks her to her door, enters her house, and accepts the drink she prepares, even though nothing bad is actually happening. In fact, everything seems consensual. Fear is coded into the interactions because, if the genders were reversed and Mina was entering Hap’s home and drinking his unsupervised cocktails, it could so easily end poorly. Add to that the fact that the lights keep going out, there’s an eerie presence lingering in the shadows, Mina doesn’t feel the cold … all the very obvious signals that something ain’t right. Signs that Hap chooses to ignore in his pursuit of a happy ending.
LaBute takes his visual cues from old Universal monster movies as he shoots these long scenes of flirtation and heavy petting, his camera immobile while the characters move through the candlelit rooms and dark corridors, always with a doorway nearby to provide a frame inside the frame. The mise en scène does most of the heavy lifting, telling us this is a horror movie while Hap awkwardly chuckles and Mina knowingly smiles and nothing continues to happen until your skin is physically itching for some kind of payoff. By the time Mina’s sister Lucy (Gia Crovatin) reveals herself, I found myself hoping the movie would finally settle into some bloody business while Hap was hoping to turn his tryst into a threesome — and that, too, was entirely the point. We know what kind of movie this is and are on edge, waiting for the turn to come (it doesn’t), and in the meantime, Hap continues to ignore his instincts and defy logic and still act like this is a normal date night. Why? Because he’s convinced he’s winning. He won when he struck up a conversation with the most beautiful woman at the bar, he won when she asked him for a ride, he won when she let him in — he thinks he’s been running the game the whole night. He can’t begin to fathom that he’s been led by the nose every step of the way. Mina and her sisters (a third one shows up too, eventually) are playing a different game, and to achieve their end they need to back Hap into a corner and see what sort of ugliness comes out.
It takes the women nearly the whole movie to break him down, but by the time Hap finally drops his romantic facade and speaks his ultimate truth — his frustration at wasting the night with these “f*cking c*nts” that he’d like to “knock across the room” — he gives Mina and her sisters the excuse they’ve been waiting for. The thing about House of Darkness is that it could have gotten to the bloody bits from the get-go. Mina was always in control. We all knew who the predator was … except for Hap. LaBute reminds us that predators don’t just hunt, they trap, and Mina uses the truth to snare Hap. House of Darkness takes its time exploring the grey area of guilt surrounding Hap, proving that he’s not as nice a guy as he thinks he is but he’s not as bad as he could be. He’s no A.J., who definitely commits several crimes in Barbarian, but scratch beneath the surface and the same capacity is there. If Barbarian is a movie about recognizing who the real monsters are, then House of Darkness is about finding the perfect prey: A person who walks straight into the trap of their own free will. Yet it’s the same blind male arrogance that makes these men unable to see that they’re the villains or the victims of these tales.