I feel cheated. The way I feel cheated when watching any Wes Craven movie besides Nightmare on Elm Street and The Last House on the Left (which still baffles me as a glaring outlier in a rather mediocre yet prolific career) or when watching any John Carpenter film besides Halloween and his Masters of Horror entry Cigarette Burns. I have this predisposition that the movie should be good while actively relegating strong contrary suspicions to the back of my mind, only to be left disappointed and perhaps a bit incredulous as to how anyone could take such a movie seriously (The Ward, My Soul to Take). Of the few defenders of duds from pros, you get defenses like "the movie was meant to be bonkers," but in the case of Dark House, the filmmaker interviews included on the DVD beg otherwise, leaving me even more floored as to the actual goals of this film.
Surely you're aware that Victor Salva's name is all over this. He is best known for the (accidental) success of Jeepers Creepers, which came out of nowhere and took unsuspecting audiences by pleasant surprise. Here was a horror filmmaker to keep one's eye on! Then, of course, attention was refocused on a rather wretched past, in connection with the illegal and hugely detestable goings-on behind the scenes of the 80s movie Clownhouse. So his name will instantly up the ante on a film for several different reasons. Rest assured, though, that the main ideas for the story you get here don't come purely from Salva; they sprung from the mind of one Charles Agron. This happens to be Agron's first film, so I don't intend to completely trash him and I plan to give his subsequent movies a shot. But it should be noted that this isn't an entirely Victor Salva effort like Jeepers Creepers, an expectation that could well be part of my problem with the film.
The originator of the idea for this story, Charles Agron, is a passionate filmmaker who worked hard to get this film produced, judging by his comments on the "Making of..." feature. He wrote the original script, marketed it around, and finally got Salva's involvement. Some comments of Agron's that stick out to me concern how he was tired of the same old horror movies that weren't smart and were loaded with cheap thrills, and he wanted to make a highly intelligent film that actually created fear and scared audiences. To be sure, these are noble ambitions in the horror community--with horror being now a fairly mature and pervasive genre, it is getting more and more difficult to effect genuine fear. But his comments really caught me off guard after having watched the movie! I more expected the filmmakers to be cajoling on set and talking about how they just wanted to have fun making a horror movie with relatively meager resources (as in Among Friends). But, no. Everyone involved seems to treat the project with the seriousness of a philosophical dissertation. Also, it seems Salva did rewrite a lot of the script, adding in character drama and exposition, so it's hard to know what Agron's original script looked like. And, again, the actors and actresses obviously take their roles extremely seriously and comment that they feel they made a beautifully dramatic and emotionally piercing film. I couldn't help but wonder, Are we talking about the same movie here?!
One thing I have to assume is that the intelligence spoken of is in the vein of the intelligence of movies like Phantasm or John Dies at the End (to poke at Cascarelli), where the plot is so wacky you have to assume you're either too dense to understand it or too unperceptive to have caught a crucial look or line or symbol that would unlock the complex meaning of the ostensibly bananas film. The filmmakers and fans of movies like this say things like "this filmmaker really thinks outside of the box." And while I'm all for getting outside of the box, I think there's a fine line between intelligence and imagination. I think it is certainly possible that one can simply spew the contents of an overactive imagination onto paper and market it as "thinking outside the box" and "intelligent" (because a lot of people don't get it). In my opinion, what makes a movie truly intelligent is when a filmmaker can take complicated matter and present it in a deceptively simple way, leaving audiences' minds blown and satisfied. I'm thinking of movies like Christopher Nolan's, movies like The Prestige and Inception. For me, watching and listening to the "Making of Dark House" was, well, embarrassing.
And this is all a shame for me to say because it all started out very promisingly. I felt like I was watching the first act of a Stephen King novel, where we get all these different elements that the rest of the story can feed off of. Within the first 15-20 minutes we get that something awful happened to Nick's mother in the past and now he's having to deal with parental-relational issues; he has a power that allows him to see how people are going to die (but only if it's a terrible death!); there is a mysterious house that haunts him; "people in the walls" talk to other characters; his girlfriend is pregnant; and a character sees an empty diner, but the (ghost?) people inside can see him. Then we get some humour from the PLS (Public Land and Survey) people that Nick and his (real-life) friend and girlfriend run into on the way to find the mystery house; and we get these insane axemen (or what I thought of as axegimps) that I assure you you will be unable to take seriously! Unfortunately, it seems a lot of what I found humorous wasn't intended to be funny, and in the end I really couldn't tell if the "big reveal" was really supposed to be a big reveal or just the ending we all expected.
Now that I've bashed it enough, I will say that, in defense of the film, it seems that perhaps the movie means so much more to the filmmakers personally that they were blinded by their emotional connection to its story. You see, the actors who play Nick and Ryan are real-life best friends and roommates, just as they are in the movie, and they've apparently grown up in foster homes together and been through some pretty miserable experiences. So, this considered, it's easy to see how the story and how spending time making the movie together can create a special view of the film that we, the audience, are disconnected from. Knowing this story-behind-the-film instead of bringing my disdain for Victor Salva, the man, to the film could have reshaped my perception a bit, but I knew nothing of it until watching the special feature, which I give the filmmakers props for since they could have used it as a marketing tool instead of letting the film stand on its own. In sum, I don't think this is actually the intelligent, frightening, and touching movie the filmmakers think it is, but I'm looking forward to seeing what else Argon has to deliver, especially after getting his first effort out there.