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Dark House

Cinedigm // Unrated // March 11, 2014
List Price: $34.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 4, 2014 | E-mail the Author
The easy way out in a horror review is to just compare whatever you're writing about to another flick. Oh, it's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with a jackhammer. It's Friday the 13th at a bar mitzvah. It's
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The Exorcist with a maltese/poodle mix. The good news is that Dark House isn't that kind of horror flick. The bad news, meanwhile, is that Dark House has more ideas and demented twists than it really knows what to do with, and the pacing sputters and stutters as it tries to piece all that together.

Nick (Luke Kleintank) hasn't had it easy. His mom checked herself into an insane asylum years ago. Nick's never known anything resembling a father, not even so much as a whispered name. He's only had two constants in his life up to this point. For one, there's this strange house he's been drawing ever since he was a tyke -- one that's continued to bleed into his work decades later as an architect. The other constant is...well, when Nick touches someone, he can often foresee how that person is going to die. There's a long list of rules for whatever this curse is, and one of 'em is that it only really kicks in if there's a particularly grisly end waiting in the wings. Unfortunately for Nick, all of this soon comes crashing together. During a rare visit to the asylum, he's caught offguard by a vision of his mother being engulfed in flames. It's only a few hours later that Nick's dark premonition comes true, but it turns out that his mother has a will he never knew about, and guess what his inheritance is...!

Nick grabs his way-pregnant girlfriend (Alex McKenna) and life-long bestie Ryan (Anthony Rey Perez) for a little road trip, although it looks like it's gonna be short-lived. Sure, he may have a musty piece of paper that says he owns this house that's been lodged in his subconscious for ages, but he soon learns that the building itself had been washed away by a flood decades earlier. Good riddance, too; according to the locals, it was an unclean place, and you can guess what that means in God-fearin' country like this. Then again, there are murmurs that the house somehow survived the flood -- that the water didn't destroy the house but instead merely moved it, wholly intact, deep into a nearby forest, never to be seen again. Nick doesn't buy into those stories but is determined to catch a glimpse of whatever's left of the place, desperate for some clue to a past he can no longer remember. He finds the house, alright...along with the man who's spent a quarter-century swinging a hammer at its decaying remains (Tobin Bell) and the small army of axe-wielding minions watching over it from a distance. Then again, did Nick find the house, or did the house find him...?

There's a hell of a lot going on in Dark House: psychic visions, a creepy asylum, a haunted house, some sinister force lurking in the walls, a prophecy spanning
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generations, Biblical stuff, axe murderers, an all-compassing conspiracy, and the list goes on and on from there. I love the fact that this isn't a story I can pretty much sum up in six or seven words. Dark House isn't a splatter-fest, but its grisliest moments are definitely something to remember. Even if this isn't exactly a haunted house movie, that rotting corpse of a building they call Wormwood would rank as one of that subgenre's all-time most visceral and daunting. The back half of Dark House piles on some genuinely spectacular twists. The best of these surprises are unexpected yet wholly earned, a feat that not all that many horror flicks can pull off successfully. There's a clear drive in Dark House to show genre fanatics something they haven't seen before. The central threats of the movie are lumbering, dreadlocked, axe-chucking man-creatures. They don't run after their prey; they hunch down and bound ahead like some sort of primate.

The problem is...well, almost everything. Co-writers Victor Salva and Charles Agron boast in the making-of featurette elsewhere on this disc about how they set out to make a character-driven horror flick. These aren't supposed to be red shirts lining up for the slaughter but well-realized people you can relate to. That's...not really how things shake out in practice. There's not a lot more to Ryan than "doggedly loyal best friend" or to Eve than "preggers girlfriend". Nick is the prophetic eye of this hurricane, but no matter how much stuff is swirling around him, he feels more like a plot device getting shoved around by the mechanics of the story rather than a proper character. As thinly sketched as the three of them are, the surveyors they bump into along the way are even less substantial, at least for a long while there. Tobin Bell spends most of the movie being quiet and
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menacing for minutes at a time, something he does really well, although the Achy Breaky Heart mullet doesn't do the guy any favors. The performances seem kind of shaky at first, especially McKenna with her overly smoky voice and Kleintank on his Lifetime Original Movie factory default setting. Some of them get better. Others start poorly and stay that way, particularly co-writer/producer Agron who really ought to stay on the other side of the camera.

Of course, shaky performances and limp characterization don't have to drag down an otherwise worthy horror flick. At the same time, the pace is wildly uneven. Pre-credit scares are a cliché, I know, but they can set the energy and tone for the rest of the movie to come. Dark House instead opens with people standing around and talking, throwing out a few teases at what's to come, and then settles in for more standing around and talking. The movie looks like it's building to a huge, climactic clash but then suddenly fades to white and cuts to a paint-by-numbers epilogue. ...what? I appreciate the originality behind them, but the ax-wielding hunchbacks and their lumbering gait come across as goofy rather than unnerving. There's very little in the way of tension or suspense, even when Nick and his pals are slowly, quietly trying to navigate through a maze of statuesque ax-monsters that could come roaring to life any second. The flow from scene to scene often feels kind of choppy. Dark House tacks on the most "wait, what?" out-of-place sex scene this side of Troll 2. Nick's spastic reactions after having one of his visions look like he's doing a pratfall for his improv group in St. Clairsville. The practical effects look fantastic, but that comes in stark contrast to that initial burst of CGI fire that gets Dark House off to such a poor start. The movie saves too much of the best stuff for the back half, the uneven pace can be a slog, and the scares are too few and far between. As inspired as many of the individual pieces and parts are, too few of the risks taken pay off. Dark House may be an interesting failure, but at the end of the day, it's still a failure. Rent It.

On the visual end of things, Dark House doesn't disappoint. The digital photography is consistently clean, crisp, and detailed. No video noise ever creeps in, not even in the most dimly-lit shots, and that's pretty critical for a movie that deservedly has "dark" in its title. There's really not much of anything to gripe about here: black levels are substantial throughout, there aren't any hiccups in the compression, and no overzealous filtering or processing ever get in the way. Terrific work all around.

Tech specs lightning round! BD-25 disc. AVC encode. 2.39:1 aspect ratio.

The 24-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is awfully effective as well. The sound design isn't what I'd call aggressive, exactly, but the movie has definitely been mixed with 5.1 in mind. The ominous footsteps as Tobin Bell's "caretaker" is first introduced and all those throaty engines get the subwoofer thumping, and the surrounds are teeming with such effects as hellish screams, howling wind, and whatever it is that's skittering inside the walls. Every
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element in the mix is impressively clean and clear, not dragged down by so much as a flicker of clipping or distortion. Part of me wishes the lossless audio could've careened deliriously over-the-top to match how gonzo Dark House can get near the end there, but this is still a solid effort just the same.

The only other audio option is a set of English (SDH) subtitles.

Well, it's more like "extra", singular.
  • The Making of Dark House (21 min.; HD): Dark House's twenty minute behind-the-scenes featurette piles on interviews with just about all of the key cast and crew, most notably co-writer/producer/actor Charles Agron. Among the topics of conversation here are financing headaches, lining up a cast (including real-life best friends Luke Kleintank and Anthony Rey Perez), shooting in an actual house that had decayed enough to not require a whole lotta dressing up, and Agron working with Victor Salva to craft what they consider a scarier, more intelligent, character-driven story. If you're into Dark House, the smart money says you'll find this making-of piece well worth a look.

The Final Word
Dark House has a hell of a lot of ambition and refuses to settle for just more of the same, but the end result is too uneven to really recommend. Rent It.
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