Directed by Victor Salva
Distributed by Cinedigm
It’s been quite some time since convicted child molester Victor Salva delivered a film worth checking out. The last good flick with his name attached was 2003’s Jeepers Creepers II, a film that featured Creeper attacks and shirtless high school boys in equal amounts. He’s spent a number of years since trying to get a third entry for that franchise off the ground, though it’s been surprisingly difficult even with the modest success of the first two. In the interim, he’s churned out a few titles that were met with moderate-to-negative reviews. His latest offering, the generically-titled Dark House (2014), started life a couple years ago under the also-generic moniker Haunted. Despite the trite title(s), the film is ambitious and engaging. Salva, working from a script by Charles Agron (this is his first feature effort), proves that he’s still a competent director, staging scenes immersed in atmosphere and delivering a horror tale that rarely yields to convention. It isn’t entirely successful in being a good film, though it does well in bringing something new and unique to the table. The story has some interesting moments early on that don’t quite pay off once things wrap up, but there’s enough mythology, death, and a host creepy characters around to maintain viewer interest.
Nick Di Santo (Luke Kleintank) is a young man with a unique ability: he can touch a person and see how they will die… sometimes. On the day of his 23rd birthday, Nick goes to visit his mother at the sanitarium where she’s been kept since he was eight years old. He’s always thought his father was dead, but mom drops the revelation that daddy may be alive after all. Nick leaves, and before he can grill mom anything further something else does the job for him – literally, she gets torched and burned alive. Eight months later, Nick is at an attorney’s office where he learns mom left him a piece of property. But this isn’t just any old house… this is an old gothic mansion that Nick has seen in his dreams since he was a kid. He’s got years of drawings to prove it. Nick, along with his girlfriend, Eve (Alex McKenna), and their friend, Ryan (Anthony Rey Perez), set off to find this home deep in the woods. Along the way the three of them run into some public survey employees – Chris (Zack Ward), Lillith (Lacey Anzelc), and Sam (Ethan S. Smith) – who offer to help the trio find the house. Floods wiped away much of what was once in the area, but the house managed to remain intact, floating through the woods before coming to rest deep in the forest. Nick’s elation turns to terror quickly when he and the group find the house and are startled by Seth (Tobin Bell, he of Jigsaw fame, sporting a terrible wig that makes him look like Dog the Bounty Hunter’s homeless brother), who warns Nick that the house holds nothing he wants. Then, a group of axe-wielding maniacs with bad posture and dreadlocks chase them away.
Nick and the group scurry through the forest, with nearly everyone making it out sans axe wounds. Their escape is short-lived, however, when their van crashes and any road they take winds up leading them right back to the house. Figuring they have no other options the group decides the best course of action is to spend the night in the house. The house where Jigsa…er, Seth is staying. The house surrounded by axe-wielding gimps. Yea, great idea… Dark House slowly reveals its hand at this point, with the various group members besieged by the axe goons while Nick is drawn to the house’s basement, where his father dwells. Seth and his merry band of axe men aren’t the only threat to Nick and his friends, as it’s revealed the members of the survey group might not be what they appear. Eventually, the night turns into a frenzy of activity as hordes of demon-things clash in front of the home while Nick is summoned to wake up daddy down below.
Salva’s horror films are typically steeped in atmosphere, Dark House being no exception. The forest setting has long been an ideal location for terror on film. When you’re deep in the woods, everything looks the same and escape is often futile. That fear is exacerbated when there’s an army of a half dozen crazies chasing you with axes. The house that serves as the central location is a huge, dilapidated ruin most people would be afraid to step foot in during the day, let alone stay the night there. The reasons for why our leading triumvirate is led there and why they return there only begins to make sense later on, when motives for other characters have been revealed.
The best thing Dark House has going for it is that the story is certainly unique. Certain elements definitely could have used a little fine tuning before filming, but this is not your typical stalk-and-slash yarn. Agron’s script is a bit more cerebral than most, a trait that helps keep viewers compelled to watch because it isn’t obvious where all of this is leading. Salva clearly had a hand in writing here because the number 23 recurs throughout, and horror fans will recall that was an important number in his Jeepers Creepers series, too. Little touches like that add an extra layer of mysticism to the picture.
If there’s one potentially cool idea that’s squandered, it’s Nick’s ability to see how someone is going to die. He can, on occasion, touch someone and – BOOM – he gets hit with the impact of their impending doom like a ton of bricks. Only he never tells anyone how they’re going to die, nor does he do anything to stop it. He gets vision after vision of how those closest to him are going to perish. Does he, you know, maybe warn them or make even a modicum of effort to prevent it? Nope. He just freaks out and then goes cold and stoic. It’s a somewhat novel concept that is largely wasted; the film wouldn’t be changed if Nick never had his ability.
All of this winds down to an ending that is a little unsatisfying given the build-up to Nick’s big meeting with Beelze-dad. Rather than arriving at a conclusion that feels like the culmination of all this talk about Nick’s heritage and releasing his father, the film takes a more esoteric approach to wrapping everything up. It’s a little bit confusing and kinda weak. Still, Dark House scores points for trying to do something outside the norm for the genre while still retaining traditional elements that make it a horror film. If anything, this shows that Salva still has the ability to make interesting, original horror properties. Now, someone get him the funding for Jeepers Creepers 3: Cathedral (tentative title) so he can cap off that trilogy.
The film’s 2.40:1 1080p image is generally pleasing, with close-ups and daylight shots showcasing some fine details and a strong color palette. As the picture fades into night, the low contrast prevents shadow detail from displaying too much, though this may have been a stylistic decision to increase tension. The darkness is quite enveloping. As a bonus, though, black levels are rich and unwavering. The picture appears to have been shot digitally, due to the absence of grain, yet it retains a filmic aesthetic which is likely thanks to Salva’s abilities as a film director; and, of course, the work of his cinematographer, the inimitable Don E. FlauntLeRoy. If someone is going to make a movie look good, it’d be him.
An English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track carries the lossless audio here. The track has a strong presence, with solid bass response from the powerful, jolting moments any good horror film requires. The enigmatic axe men offer up many of those scares courtesy of their flying weapons, which strike with appropriate force. Dialogue comes through with perfect clarity. The rear speakers come into play infrequently, though when they are used a moderate sense of immersion is achieved. The film’s score was handled by Salva stalwart Bennett Salvay, who also handled scoring duties on the Jeepers Creepers series. His work here is brimming with taut, tense moments punctuated by intense stringed instrumentation. While it lacks memorable themes, it more than delivers on maintaining an undercurrent of horror. Subtitles are included in English SDH.
The Making of Dark House features screenwriter Charles Agron, who comes across as an… interesting dude, talks about how this film is “smart horror”, while Salva discusses some of the casting bits (like working with Bell). One cool fact: the house used for shooting was once a brothel.
3 out of 5
1 out of 5