Hap (Justin Long) can barely believe his luck. Drunk at the bar and prone to delivering corny pick-up lines, he decides to chat up Mina (Kate Bosworth) only to discover she’s amenable to his liquor-tinged charms. While we don’t witness this meet-cute ourselves, seeing them in his car as it pulls up to her secluded woodlands estate suggests they hit it off. Just because Hap was brave enough to offer his services as chauffeur, however, doesn’t mean he’d go so far as to invite himself in. So he feigns chivalry instead, asking if she’d like an escort to her door. Mina is thus the one who confidently escalates this scenario by suggesting they have a drink in a way that seductively plants seeds for more.
Despite the horror typography and atmosphere of this entrance, House of Darkness‘ hapless (pun intended) business consultant all too willing to be seduced by a beautiful and mysterious woman—who’s obviously using him as a plaything in some psychological game of flirtation meant to coax out his true intentions—still feels like one of Neil LaBute’s contemporary scenarios: skewering the hostile dynamics borne from a desire for sexual and gendered control. By using Jonathan Harker’s interaction with the “weird sisters” from Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a starting point, he’s concocted an adult fable that seeks to turn the tables on the inherent power struggle at the center of toxic masculinity. Because while Hap enjoys a woman who knows what she wants, that enjoyment is predicated on her wants mirroring his.
And from the one-track-mind gaze of an inebriated and horny man, those wants do seem aligned. We know better, though. We see Mina’s smile is less about being disarming and more about having a whole lot of fun. The film embraces that duality. It fosters it as a means to poke and prod Hap into either explaining what he means and acknowledge the error of his ways or doubling down on his superficiality and lies to soldier forward in the hopes of getting laid. Mina’s dialogue is constantly leading him towards self-made precipices to see whether he’ll jump off, catching him in contradictions and holding him to the words he uses regardless of intent. Hap enjoys the challenge. He revels in its foreplay because he feels safe.
It’s an entertaining conceit because Hap doesn’t feel very safe otherwise. Mina is a “bunny” to him—something she plays up by pumping his ego and admitting he could do whatever he wanted to her if he so chooses. Anytime Hap hears or sees something, however, he jumps a foot in the air. You therefore must ask why. It’s not guilt. He is quick to tell Mina that morality isn’t something he cares about. What he fears is becoming the prey he so calmly relegates her into being as the default. When she asks if he’s married, it’s because she wants to know what kind of person he is. When he asks her, it’s because he’s afraid a stronger man might burst in with violent intent.
He doesn’t think he deserves this. When Hap talks to his friend on the phone he gloats his way to being even more afraid when offscreen noises threaten to expose him. Again, though, it’s not because he doesn’t want to hurt Mina’s feelings; it’s because he doesn’t want to ruin his chances at having something to gloat about. All his insecurities are laid bare and he’s unsure what to do. Can he screw this up? Sure. Can this all be a game? Maybe. Must he worry if it is? Not if they remain alone. Whether he would hurt Mina isn’t at the forefront of his mind. It’s knowing he could that is. Add another person to the equation and that knowledge diminishes. And Enter Lucy (Gia Crovatin).
LaBute is meticulously escalating the danger by providing Hap his wildest dreams in a way that reveals to the audience how their ability to come true is reliant upon him losing control. One beautiful woman flirting with him should be enough to satiate his desires, yet having Mina so readily provide that attention leaves him feeling immortal. Why not go for two? They both have a way about them that makes him see what he wants to see. How they speak and act circuitously forces him to reconsider how he speaks and acts out of embarrassment. They mock and judge him so they can tell him it’s okay. They build his defenses up to tear them down, tricking him into dropping all pretense and be himself.
That we’re in on it makes the whole more intriguing—we can never know when the other shoe will drop. It will drop. We know it right from the start with how Mina plays Hap against himself with such ease. At some point the ruse will dissolve and he will wake up bound to a chair for the real fun to begin, but we can never know when. It could happen in five minutes or an hour. It depends on how long LaBute wants Mina, Lucy, and whomever else lurks in the shadows to teach their lesson. And in what way that lesson will be taught. Anyone who knows the filmmaker’s previous work should know his talent lies in the acerbic wit and brutal truth of language.
Bosworth shines at wielding those words. She is having a blast, reveling in her prey’s growing discomfort. Her Mina harkens back to the manipulations of LaBute’s earlier work—In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things—as Hap proves himself a willing victim insofar as garnering zero sympathy from us. Long is constantly backpedaling as he tries to untwist his own words once Mina dissects them, daring him to choose between honesty (and risk killing the mood) or more lies (giving her reason to keep stringing him along). There are definite comparison points to the Christopher Mintz-Plasse scene in Promising Young Woman, but the difference here is that the lesson isn’t the point. It’s the game. The point is blood—a lot of it.
House of Darkness opens in limited release on September 9 before hitting Digital HD & VOD on September 13.