Neil LaBute talks "House of Darkness," his modern take on "Dracula" that flips the power dynamic

The acclaimed "Wicker Man" filmmaker spoke with Salon about playing with horror, gender and unlikeable characters

Published September 9, 2022 5:15PM (EDT)

Justin Long as Hap Jackson and Kate Bosworth as Mina Murray in "House of Darkness" (Saban Films)
Justin Long as Hap Jackson and Kate Bosworth as Mina Murray in "House of Darkness" (Saban Films)

Neil LaBute's debut film, "In the Company of Men," 25 years ago, was rife with toxic male behavior as two male coworkers set out to "ruin" a female colleague. His latest film, "House of Darkness" may be the flipside of that narrative as Hap (Justin Long) never quite seems to have much control while on a date with Mina (Kate Bosworth), despite what he thinks.

"What if I take what looks like a meet cute and pull that over into the horror world?"

The couple have only just met at a bar earlier that evening. Hap has "gallantly" driven Mina home — of course, with the expectation of sleeping with her. (Hap expresses it more crudely when gloating over the phone to a buddy about his planned evening.) But don't think Mina isn't aware of Hap's intentions. She asks Hap quite pointedly if he is honest (he admits he's a fibber), and, also, if he is married (he grudgingly admits he is legally separated). Hap's discomfort only increases as Mina's sister, Lucy (Gia Crovatin), walks in on them just after Mina has unbuckled Hap's trousers. Act Two features an extended dialogue between Lucy and Hap that also does not bode well for him.

LaBute's talky film is a slow burn that may signpost where it is going, but the leads keep things interesting because Long is chatty and obsequious, while Bosworth maintains both composure and an allure. "House of Darkness" is ultimately a genre exercise (it's inspired by Bram Stoker's "Dracula") that plays out in, well, an old, dark house. (The electricity goes out shortly after Hap and Mina arrive, so much of the atmospheric first act is illuminated by a fireplace and candlelight.) 

The filmmaker talked with Salon about his new film, the power dynamics between his characters, and his career as a whole.

You've long been writing plays and making features and shorts about the interplay between men and women. What did you feel you still need to say about gender roles and male and female dynamics with "House of Darkness?"

Now, it's looking to find new ways to do that. How does that fit that into genre? What if I take what looks like a meet cute and pull that over into the horror world? It's always been fascinating to me in terms of what I've viewed as a person and what I've tried to create as well. Men and women, and women and women, and men and men, those dynamics between people are endlessly watchable and fascinating. Eric Rohmer culled that world for 40 years and I think I've seen them all. What made him interested in that? Or Claude Chabrol go after the dynamics and filter them through thrillers? We like what we like. I've been enamored of it as a person, and as a filmmaker and a playwright. I keep going to that well because that well is interesting and I keep finding something in the well. It hasn't gone dry yet — unless you disagree.

What I love about your films in general, and this film in particular, is how the language is often used as a weapon. Hap accuses Mina of "putting words in his mouth" when he is just careless about what he says, or how he expresses himself. Mina does "say what she means" and wonders why Hap doesn't. Is this film a cautionary tale about using your words? He is as sloppy as she is precise.

That's part of it. Part of the dynamic is looking at what if this was flipped? If a woman gave a guy a ride home, would she even get out of the car, and go into that place? The luxury of feeling in control a guy has often in his life is something that doesn't get examined. Filtering it through this fable — here's a dark and stormy night and he drives a woman home, and he is self-professed "a good guy," and makes claims, "Oh, should I even come in?"

But he's pushing further and further even when red flags are going off, and the lights go out, he still feels that he is in control. That dynamic of power that is rooted in a person simply from gender, because of genre, you can flip it in a way that would be much harder than if they are two regular people just off the street. They turn out to be not exactly that. So, we were about to ask, "What happens when someone feels fear for the first time, and realize what they said is going to get them in trouble?" What he says and what he means and what is the truth and what is the lie. That was fun to play with in a film that increasingly gets more like horror as you go along. 

Hap is an unreliable narrator. But it's Justin Long, so I don't know that I believe him. I want to, but I'm not sure . . .

It's funny casting him because even if people don't know his name, they go, "I like that guy. He's funny." They want to give him the chance to believe him. He gets away with a lot as an actor and as a character that other actors may not have gotten away with.

House of DarknessJustin Long as Hap Jackson in "House of Darkness" (Saban Films)

His performance is really specific. He just digs himself deeper into this grave and just cannot read the room. It's cringy and funny and almost too much. I'm not sure who I'm rooting for. 

By the end of the film, I'm curious what the percentage of people will be, "Yeah, I'm OK with all of this." It will be interesting to see what people think. Kate [Bosworth] on the other side of the couch, is so precise and still and in control in how she makes her moves and uses silence.

There is a morality at work, or at play, here, with Mina and Lucy questioning — and perhaps judging — Hap about his guilt, or his needing validation. Is it adultery if he is married, but legally separated? What can you say about developing the characters? 

"What happens when someone feels fear for the first time, and realize what they said is going to get them in trouble?"

The women talked about that in a way. We tried to keep, not distance, between the actors, but in terms of Justin keeping his cards closer to his vest in terms of how he felt about the character. The women, because they were sisters, they are approaching things in a different away. Would Mina let him go if only he said the right things? Is there a mission — do we have an obligation to take out the worst people, rather than just anybody? That was fun to talk about, but not necessarily in the script. It was fun for the actors to have that ammo in their heads without everything be written down.

You are putting a genre spin on the seduction here. There are a few moments of non-verbal violence that may be jarring for viewers. I think your films are emotionally violent. This is more physical.

We owed ourselves to build towards that and have a payoff in that world. It's much more about creating the tension and asking people to wait and have that burn be very slow and build. It is a completely different set of rules and tools when you try to stretch out and create — in almost real time — something palpable that feels like fear or dread. That takes a whole different approach, especially if you want actors to be in the same frame, and not do it through editing. Some of it is on the page, some is you are building in room, some is from the source material and what [the inspiration] is doing. For me, it was more about if those weird sisters were around, what would they be doing? What do they do for fun? Is this fun? Those ideas when into the script.  

"House of Darkness" is very theatrical, given that it's set in one location, and has only two or three characters, mostly talking. You use space well to isolate the characters and create emotion. How did you develop the film's visual style?

It would be fun to see if you could drag it on to the stage, and how it would play out. In these situations, the ability to get close, but in a theater, you are at a fixed distance from the actors unless they come closer to you. Film is able to overwhelm you in a way that theater can't, even though it is a live experience. With the same mechanics, how different an experience would it be? When you can see things in a movie house, it's an overwhelming in the best way as opposed to watching it on your phone, which doesn't transport you in the same way. 

I appreciate that you are a storyteller, like Lucy. And I suspect you are a game player like Mina. Are you a fibber like Hap? How much of yourself is in these characters?

I am all of them, sure, yeah. Do I see myself as any one of them? No. But you want to believe in the course of what you are writing, that you are making a character where you think, "I see a piece of me in that." Whether is it the good one, or the bad one, or one in between. I'm capable of all those beats — maybe not the last three or four, but everything up to that is fair game.

It's been 25 years since your breakout film, "In the Company of Men," yet somehow you will probably most be identified with your remake of "The Wicker Man," which has developed, pun intended, a cult following. You've taken risks but you've also made films that are clearly by Neil LaBute if folks don't see the credits. What observations do you have about your career?

There was a moment along the way several films in where you make a decision: Are you going to write or direct everything, or be open to directing other people's stuff, or adapt stuff? I took a road that said I am open to attempting stuff that I find interesting, and I'll write as much as I can write, but there are other scripts that I am going to stumble onto. When I first saw "Nurse Betty," that was a script I didn't want to give up. I didn't write it, I did a lot of writing on it, but it was a choice to direct that or write my own thing. I've adapted stuff, I've remade stuff, I've done originals and it's allowed me to create some kind of serpentine career that has been my own.

What is interesting is that over the years, and it may be why I watch all your film, but I don't always like the characters you write. 

Nor do I! But that doesn't mean that they don't pop out. 

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What do you look for when you create your work?

I don't question it too much. If I'm adapting or someone is paying me to do something in a certain way, that's a particular kind of job. But when I have a story, or get an idea, and it feels sound after I've taken it for a spin a few times, and say, "Does this work for me? Is this really interesting?" I don't ask why these people show up, I figure, they are there, and I want to be true to them and tell their story, so I go off and do it. I supposed if I was an honest-to-goodness therapist, I'd spend more time wondering why than I do about the how and the what. If it feels like they are worth creating, then I put them on the page and sometime bring them to the stage or the screen. 

"See How They Run" is in theaters Sept. 9. Watch a trailer via YouTube.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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