Sunday, September 25, 2016

House of Darkness (Painless Productions/Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’ve generally avoided Lifetime’s forays into ghost stories and haunted-house tales, but last night they were offering a “world premiere” of a film called House of Darkness and I thought I’d give it a chance. It was directed by Patrick DeLuca from a script by … well, I don’t know, because I missed the opening credits and’s page on it doesn’t yet list a writer, so I don’t know either who to credit for the occasional felicitous touches in the script or blame for the sillinesses and outrageous devices, including an open-ended ending of a kind that about 20 or 30 years ago would have seemed innovative but now is annoyingly clichéd. It opens with a scene on Hallowe’en in 1957, in which two trick-or-treaters approach a house in a remote rural area of northern California, get invited in, the door closes — and suddenly we hear them scream. Then the time moves up to July 2015, and the house is occupied by a young (straight) couple from San Francisco, Brian (Gunner Wright) and Kelly (Sara Fletcher). They already have a daughter, Sarah (Mykayla Sohn), but Kelly wants another child — only Brian, a carpenter and cabinetmaker, is such a workaholic he’s never home long enough for the two to have sex. Brian sells her on the idea of moving to the country by telling her they’ll be more alone, there will be fewer urban-related distractions and therefore more time for the “adult nights” they need to complete the sex act and conceive already.

Their marriage is already on the rocks — they’ve been seeing a marriage therapist in San Francisco (a heavy-set avuncular African-American woman, reflecting Lifetime’s tendency to cast Blacks in the roles of all-wise authority figures trying to deter the white characters from doing the stupid things they have to do for Lifetime movies to have plots at all) but they won’t be able to keep seeing her once they move hundreds of miles away, so she tells them to keep video journals by talking to their computers at night and gives Brian a yellow squeeze-ball with a smiley-face on it to squeeze whenever he gets stressed. One of the big issues in their marriage is that Kelly works as a massage therapist, and Brian is ferociously jealous that she’ll get hot-looking male customers, lose control completely and thereby have sex with them (and I can imagine the defense I would have written for her if I’d been writing this: “If you’d have sex with me once in a while, I wouldn’t need another guy to father my next child!”). At one point the couple are visited by Kelly’s sister Jamie (Brittany Falardeau), who brings along her son Mason (Thomas Rand), who’s about Kelly’s age — Jamie lives back in San Francisco with her husband Mark, whom we never see — and already things have started to happen to establish the house’s “hauntedicity.” Kelly has been scared to death by an apparition that turns out to be her daughter Sarah putting a sheet over her head and pretending to be a ghost — only she sees the apparition later when it’s not her daughter — and when they’re playing together Mason goes into the basement and then the door closes behind him; Sarah is accused of locking her in but she didn’t — some sort of sinister force did. Brian starts getting more jealous and more violent; he accuses Kelly’s sister Jamie of having a sexual quickie with Clark (Raphael Thompson), the hot Black stud who’s their next-door neighbor and is also the community’s chief law enforcement officer (and when we see Clark leaving Brian’s and Kelly’s home dressed in nothing above the waist and only a pair of skin-tight long johns below it, it’s hard not to think there’s some justice behind Brian’s suspicions). “You cheated on your husband, and you did it in our home!” Brian thunders at Jamie, who responds by packing up Mason and leaving.

Meanwhile Brian has an affair of his own with Clark’s wife Ellen (Nikki Alexis Howard) — or at least a quickie on the floor of the garage he’s converted into his wood shop and where he’s spending his nights making cabinets and tables for the locals; Ellen had been flirting with him from the moment he and Kelly got there and she left them a freshly baked pie. Though Gunner Wright is considerably hotter-looking than the usual tall, lanky, sandy-haired actor Lifetime usually picks as their male leads (he’s shorter than their norm but also considerably more muscular), one still gets the impression Ellen is trading down by cheating on Clark with him — and it’s not terribly surprising that Brian’s actions get progressively crazier as the film goes on, to the point where he’s alternately shown wielding sharp objects like axes, knives and chisels, and locking them in a locker in his workshop and literally throwing away the key so he can’t get to them if he’s tempted to use them. That’s a hot man in a Lifetime movie for you: they almost always turn out to be the villains. At the same time director DeLuca is giving us plenty of shots of Sarah with her eyes glaring at the camera and the other cast members, making us wonder if the unnamed writer(s) planned to pull the gimmick of having the whatsit that’s haunting the house take possession of her and have her start knocking off the rest of the cast — the scenes with Sarah and her cousin Mason had elements of The Turn of the Screw and the later scenes with Sarah alone, casting all those burning glares, call to mind The Bad Seed — but at the end the gimmick turns out to be a pretty prosaic one: the action we saw in the first scene (which I missed on the first go-round but caught up with at Lifetime’s midnight rerun of the film) is that the high-school principal lived in that house and was a decent, normal, fully respected member of that community until he went berserk that Hallowe’en night in 1957 and molested, tortured and murdered those two trick-or-treaters — who remained on the grounds as ghosts, determined to get the people who lived in the house subsequently to murder each other so the ghosts, who feed on other people’s pain and death, could be happy by making everyone else miserable. It ends with the house catching fire and burning down — Kelly and Sarah get out safely but Brian, trapped in his workshop, burns up and dies — and it looks like we’re going to have a happy ending with Kelly and Sarah returning to San Francisco and the urban life they were both more comfortable with, only a Latino-looking police officer (who seems to be the only law enforcement person besides Clark in the whole town!) interrogates her and comes to the conclusion that Kelly actually set the fire and murdered her husband for the $3 million in life insurance they had on each other.

We don’t get to find out what happens to her — whether she is exonerated or locked up in prison like the last woman who lived in that house, who under the influence of the evil spirits haunting it killed her entire family by feeding them rat poison (Kelly actually interviewed her in prison and she said her phone rang and snapped her away from doing that, but somehow the ghosts got to her family anyway and they ate the poisoned meal, which she’d already thrown away, and died) — but instead there’s a final scene with yet another husband, wife and daughter moving into the house (which, though totally consumed by the fire, must have been rebuilt to the same design because it looks identical only now it’s painted brown instead of white), and the daughter, who’s something of a punk because she has long black hair, wears black lipstick and is dressed in a black leather suit like the ones Patti Smith used to wear on her album covers, is glaring at the camera the same way Sarah used to, indicating that the ghosts from the basement are still haunting the place and are going to get this family, too. Oh, and did I mention that at one point Kelly calls in a psychic who tells them that the basement is actually the one place in the house where Sarah is safe from the ghosts (this is after a scene in which Sarah disappears and they find her inside the house’s walls, with no rational explanation of how she got there), only when she gets in her car to leave, it fills with quite nasty stinging insects and she’s lucky to get out of there alive? Through much of this movie I was counterpointing it with the old film I’d seen recently, Victor Halperin’s Supernatural (1933), and thinking that Supernatural was an example of how to do a credible ghost story with a contemporary (for the time it was made) setting and House of Darkness was an example of how not to — that’s being a little harsher on House of Darkness than it deserves, since at least it’s well acted (especially by the leads) and much of it well staged by director DeLuca — though I could have done without the long time-lapse montages to get us from night to day where a classic-era director would have just cut from one to the other. I didn’t actively dislike this movie but I didn’t like it that much either!