[14 March 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
How do you separate the artist from their art? Put another way, if a pedophile makes a movie that you like, does this mean you condone his (or her) despicable behavior off camera? The answer, logically, is no. Both things are separate, just like a great work of literature by a raging alcoholic can be appreciated outside its 100 proof origins. Of course, child molestation is a million miles away from drinking to excess, and yet that’s what faces a film fan every time they take in an effort by Victor Salva. Convicted in the late ‘80s of a terrible crime on the set of something called Clownhouse, he finally reestablished his cinematic credentials with the preposterous abuse allegory Powder as well as the often effective Jeepers Creepers horror franchise. Infusing a new found sense of faith into his prison reform reinvention, it clear he wants to put his past behind him and just make worthwhile movies. Sadly, Dark House is not one of them.
Indeed, almost all of Salva’s output plays as a mea culpa without actually taking responsibility for his reprehensible crimes. The web has gone wild with his previous work, picking apart films like Powder to underscore the director’s back and forth between God and the grotesque crime he’s guilty of. One imagines that there won’t be many dissertations on this latest mess of misplaced genre conceits. Instead, Salva’s proposed motion picture acumen abandons him here, leaving the audience wondering what to make out of the myriad of disconnected ideas and misguided macabre facets flung at the screen. We are supposed to be scared, not confused. We are supposed to see this story as the start of something bigger and broader. It won’t get another chance to challenge/change that perception.
Our tale begins in an insane asylum (naturally) where our hero Nick (Luke Kleintank) learns some sordid family secrets from his institutionalized mom (Leslie-Ann Down, seriously slumming). Plagued with an ability to “touch” people and “see their death”, our lead discovers that his supposedly dead dad is still alive and he may have some insight into Nick’s sixth sense. One inconvenient sanitarium fire later and our boy is off to find the house he just inherited. Along for the ride is his pregnant girlfriend Eve (Alex McKenna), and his best friend, Ryan (Anthony Rey Perez). When they find the place, miles from where it used to be and very much still standing, something is not right. Then Nick runs into a weird homeless squatter named Seth (Tobin Bell) and his collection of killer, axe-wielding buddies. Then some surveyors die. Then Eve turns out to be “the One.” Soon, the audience is aggravated as nothing makes sense and the entirety of the narrative seems to hinge on sudden shocks and generic jumps.
Dark House—originally entitled Haunted—is lame. What it lacks in scares it more than makes up for in incomprehensible narrative choices. Salva clearly decided that the script by Charles Agron needed to be even more confusing and so he turned a traditional terror trope into an outright battle between good and evil. In essence, Nick is the prophet prohibited from putting the obvious warning signs together until he actually faces off with the forces of Darkness. His gift is not so much a red herring as a redundant reminder that he’s got ‘powers’. No, what we need to feed this monster (or monsters, or supernatural stupidity) is a sacrifice, or an unborn child, or any other manner of innocence to be defiled. Once Nick “gets” it, a denouement occurs which leaves everyone, including the audience, scratching their head a bit.
Now, if any of this were even remotely scary, let’s say the first 45 minutes of Jeepers Creepers scary, we wouldn’t mind. Horror films often play with the practical and pragmatic to get to their paranormal designs. But here, Salva struggles to be intriguing. Since he throws the jolts at us with Pixies’ “QUIETloud” regularity, it’s hard to build up a good sense of dread. Instead, we keep waiting for that moment when the soundtrack will shock us again, proving that nothing this film has, except unexpected noises, will bring us to the edge of our seat. Again, the unusual and eccentric can work. Just look at Insidious. Dark House wants to be like the recent rash of subtle serious horror. The only problem is, it’s an unholy hunk of boring beer cheese.
And we haven’t even touched on the air ducts. Strange voices emanating from your HVAC would be cause to call an exorcist, not a contractor (or maybe, both) but it does make for a ridiculous fright bite. Imagine seeing your parent having a sit down with your space heater and you get the idea. In fact, the unintentionally hilarious home heating and cooling concept is just one of the many reasons why this movie doesn’t work. Like comedy, terror is highly personal, and it takes a lot - both behind and in front of the camera - to get the jaded scary movie fan (like yours truly) to jump out of his skin. [REC] and [REC]2 did it. So did the aforementioned Insidious and The Conjuring. Here, Salva’s strategies fail him. We aren’t horrified by what we see and experience. We’re stunned that someone is still giving him a chance.
Indeed, what does it take to have your artistic license revoked by Hollywood? It would seem like, in Salva’s case, an admission and a prison sentence would be good enough. Apparently, a few hundred million in box office receipts can right any wrong. Someone like Salva should have been shown the door a long time ago, even with a burgeoning franchise bringing in mega-bucks. Instead, we get all weepy and call for second chances and a sense of understanding. Beyond that BS, if he had something significant to contribute to the artform conversation, we might consider a reprieve. In the case of something like Dark House, damnation is the only accurate response.