With Halloween looming around the bend, my viewing habits turn towards the tried and true horror tropes. Werewolf tales, ghost stories and classic monster movies elbow found footage, home invasion and low budget slashers aside and make their way to the front of the queue. As the 31st closes in, I find fewer things more satisfying than a subtle, well crafted haunted house film that chills me to my marrow and raises the hair on the back of my neck.
“Dark House” is most definitely not that kind of movie. A disaster on all levels, it's the kind of film that forces me to question if the ninety minute investment of my time could have been better spent cat wrangling or setting up an underground bum fighting ring.
“Dark House” begins with a ten year old girl walking into the spooky neighborhood orphanage on a dare from friends. She stumbles into a charnel house, one which the pulpy, gore streaked remains of a half dozen children litter the floor. Standing in the kitchen is the home's matron, a religious wing nut who seeks absolution by thrusting her own hand into the kitchen disposal and flicking on the power. It's the high point of the film, with a glimmer of promise before the rails come off.
Fast forward fourteen years later and we meet Claire(Meghan Ory) on her therapists couch. Though she can't recall the specifics, the events of that day have damaged the young woman to the point where she needs heavy meds to function. Her shrink, in an extraordinary head scratching moment of bad psychiatry suggests Claire head back to the now abandoned death house to seek closure. In a rare sane moment, Claire responds that this is a terrible idea, and that her meds are dampening her spirit because she wants to be an actress god dammit and actresses ned to FEEL. Ugh.
We're then introduced to the rest of a cast via Claire's acting class. As you might guess, they come straight out of central casting for a horror film: angry goth chick, blonde sexpot, black guy, class clown and hunky love interest. Into the lives of this future group of baristas saunters Walton Rey (The Re-Animator himself, Jeffrey Coombs) with a paid gig for the group. Rey owns a number of haunted theme parks and has purchased the murder house with plans to turn it into his greatest attraction yet! He wants the class to act as guides and players and of course Claire changes her stance, leading the charge to take the gig, because everybody knows Phillip Seymour Hoffman got his big break when he was discovered playing the costumed mascot of a crocodile themed mini-golf course.
I think we all cherish Coombs for his role as Dr. Herbert West, but his turn here is flat out awful, Coombs is in full-on “THAT'S SHOW BUSINESS” mode here, and he comes of like a 1940's tycoon. Every utterance from his mouth comes across like the spiraled ham your grandmother severs for Easter dinner. It's just painful to sit through. It's so bad that Bruce Campbell texted him during the shoot to tell him “enough already. Tone it down a bit”.
Along with Rey and the class, a pair of cub reporters writing about the attraction are on hand for the tour, and to pad the body count. Now, you would figure that if one purchased a home where a crime so notorious went down the house stood vacant for a decade and a half, you would incorporate the history into the show. However, you're only thinking that because you have a rough notion about decent storytelling. Instead of a house full of vengeful dead children, “Dark House” has the unquiet spirit of the orphanage's matron inflicting a virus on the super computer that runs the show, causing the attraction's hologram images of monsters and killers to spring to life and reign death on the group. It's an idea every bit as stupid in execution as it reads on the page.
The last half of the film finds the group getting picked off while they scamper about in shrill fashion. It's an extended sequence devoid of tension, crafted with the best CGI 1987 can offer and completely free of any surprises whatsoever. There's a flash back to past where we get a “big reveal” about Claire, and then there's a tacked on epilogue and we're all free to go home.
Under normal circumstances “Dark House” would just be another bad horror movie, no different from the pile of junk that clutters the Netflix landscape. What makes the film all the more disappointing is the presence of the Fangoria logo on the cover art. Granted the publication doesn't hold the sway it once did, but any self respecting horror fan has to have a truck load of warm memories with regards to what was once the gore lover's bible. When they briefly entered the film distribution business, you would think those behind the imprint would know what doesn't work when it comes to genre films. The idea that they'd put their seal of approval on a film so trite and devoid of intelligence just pushes Fango further down the road of irrelevance.