Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the most horrifying, bone-chilling, spleen-liquefyingly frightening thing any of you have ever seen… Daahhhhhhkkk Haaaaauuuus.
Just kidding, it’s not that scary.
The credits outstay their welcome and seem to go for an unconscionably long time (around three minutes, or thereabouts). We’re treated to some moody shots of creepy children’s dolls drenched in soy sauce– I mean, blood. Obviously, blood. Not soy sauce. That would be silly. Keep up.
The story actually begins fourteen years in the past, where a group of little kids are gawking at an actually-pretty-cool, but otherwise run-of-the-mill rich-guy-dwelling in the form of a Victorian manor. Nevertheless, they describe it as the scariest house they’ve ever seen and one of the little girls goes inside.
Now, either this little girl is really conditioned to seeing dead bodies, or she legitimately believes that the dead children littering the inside of the manor are “just sleeping.” We see a creepy old lady with her hand in the garbage disposal, which appears to be doing a remarkably good job killing her. This brings me to this movie’s first (and likely greatest) strength – sounds. Maybe I’m specifically vulnerable to this, but the sounds of Ms. Creepy Lady’s hand being devoured by whirling metal blades were very eerie and persistent, enough to get a bit of a chill out of me. Not bad.
The little girl, understandably, seems pretty creeped out, despite having no discernible self-preservation instinct. But before we can think about that too very hard, we hop to present day. The little girl is now Claire (Meghan Ory), a standard-model Final Girl in her late teens/early twenties, who suffers from nightmares from her trials. I was kinda expecting her to actually be in a mental hospital, but nah – she got by with some therapy and pills. Those gosh darn pills, however, conflict with her dreams of being an actress.
Fortunately, to offset that, her therapist gives her fantastic advice on how to confront her childhood fears, like using her salary as an out-of-work theater actress to hire an army, which I’m sure would work really well if armies were in the business of escorting crazy girls into abandoned houses. But I digress.
Aaanyway, she heads off to some kind of bizarre acting class and the movie gets started, as we’re introduced to the cast of memorable characters. To do some lightning-fast exposition on what each character’s like, the kids do some kind of amazingly mean-spirited “honesty” exercise where they manage to keenly describe themselves and each other to the audience. This almost tricked me, as I found myself wondering why in the hell this scene had to exist, until I realized that it was flash-frying the personalities of the characters (making it actually kind of genius). These characters are:
- The bitchy blonde
- The jockish mook
- The mousy goth girl
- The brainy black guy
- The scrawny jokester
- And of course, our fairly nondescript protagonist, Claire. She’s the only one whose name I bothered to learn.
But suddenly, a wild Jeffrey Combs appears! He offers all of these little actorlings $300 a pop to be in his new scaaary movie, Daaark Hooouse, which is about a Hooouse that is Daaark and scary things will happen in it! The actors protest to this briefly for absolutely stupid reasons (like taking themselves seriously), but let me let you in on a little secret… I worked as an actor for a while some years back. No actor on earth turns down a paid gig unless they already have one. Fortunately, Claire reminds everyone of that and they reluctantly agree. Oh, and the house in question is the haunted house in which all those kids got killed by the crazy lady.
Jeffrey Combs is awesome as always, even though he clearly took a shortcut and decided to play the exact same character he played in Would You Rather. At least he’s fun to watch. His sidekicks are a fabulously manic Johnny Depp-Cobain and a whimsical lesbian, and together they reach the conclusion that this film has far too much scenery and decide to consume absolutely all of it.
Anyway, the little actorlings keep informing us that the house is suuuper scary despite it not really being, but we finally see the secret to Jeffrey’s movie – he has access to the “world’s most advanced holographics,” which are so realistic they can sort of contact living beings (contact affects them, but not the people). This however, leads me to wonder why he decided to pay his actors so little if he has enough money to purchase and operate that kind of equipment.
Combs explains how the holographics work and introduces the team to his resident nerd who runs the machine in the basement. They make sure to use words like “system” a whole lot to make sure you know that some seriously technological wonders are taking place, and need systems to do so.
Claire has some mildly spooky hallucinations off and on, and coupled with the holograms (or “holographs,” as most of the characters prefer to say), this carries the brunt of spookiness for the first half of Dark House, and sadly, what this movie isn’t is scary. It tells too much so that by the time it shows, the effect is more or less lost. This double-threat of hallucinations and holograms eventually does proceed to random bizarre killings with no explanation, which keeps things murky until the third act.
The film keeps itself afloat on novelty alone. Jeffrey Combs is so inanely campy that it very nearly breaches the fourth wall (another character mentions that “this guy really loves his work”), his sidekicks are nearly as bad, and the side characters have distinct enough personalities that you can find yourself caring about what happens to them, should Dark House catch you on a good day. The combination of good ham, deliberately bad ham, possibly-deliberate bad ham, and possibly-unintentional epic ham leaves me absolutely stumped as to whether or not the acting in this movie is awesome or horrible. However, considering the film’s nature, it pretty much works overall.
Where was I?
Oh, right, so evil computer ghosts (?) hijacked the holograms and made them quasi-real(?), so the various random “spooky” effects actually start killing people. The special effects are pretty good, some of the kills are decently creative, the pacing is great once the movie actually starts, and overall things start to pick up in the third act. The actors think that some of these deaths are effects for the movie, but that doesn’t last when they start getting blood on them.
The ghosts (just one ghost, actually – Claire insists that it’s the old woman who killed those kills in the building, and let’s be honest, we should have all known she’d be the primary antagonist when the film began) show off their most consistent ability of shutting and locking doors and windows, so when everyone finally tries to leave they find it quite impossible.
By this time, the soy sauce blood is replaced with bizarre CGI blood that resembles a stream of pomegranate seeds. Keeps things fresh.
Different characters start to bolt in different directions, which actually leads to a really funny scene when the whimsical lesbian attempts to rescue the bitchy blonde. I won’t spoil it, but it gave me a hell of a chuckle. There are actually a few funny moments that pop up around now, such as when the lights go out and three characters all pull out lighters, which is quickly lampshaded with “It’s a good thing we’re all smokers.”
The movie doesn’t try too hard to be something it knows it will never be, and makes up for it with personality. It does have a few plot holes and traditional bad decisions (such as sending in the jock, rather than the goth girl, when they realize that the holograms are triggered by fear – stereotypically, she should be the most conditioned against fear, not him), but I find myself forgiving it.
Anyway, characters keep dying off and eventually it’s down to Claire (who did you think was gonna live? Johnny Depp-Cobain?) and, surprise, it’s the evil ghost of the evil child-killing lady. But wait! She’s not an ordinary ghost! She’s a Zealous Christian Ghost! Dun dun DUNNN!
Okay, so, while the realism aspect of Zealous Christianity + Child Abuse makes it so that it always ends up a little eerie, it’s grown to be cheap in the extreme. This particular movie does pull it off well, but I still can’t credit it on a concept that is, ultimately, as dried up and sticky as a popsicle in the desert. The climax morphs into an obligatory twist ending. It’s genuinely pretty creepy, and also explains a lot of things from the film and makes it a smarter movie overall, despite the weaknesses in its core concept. I’m trying to tip-toe around it in case anyone actually watches this and doesn’t want the ending ruined for them, though particularly adroit viewers may see it coming.
Also, in case you were wondering…
OR WAS IT?!?!?!
OR WAS IT, Y’KNOW, NOT?!
(Double-twist! – it was.)