The camera pans over dolls. All sorts of children's playthings. Child's music plays in the background. Credits slowly appear and disappear. Then a scream, a splash of blood, and a distinct change in mood. The camera continues to pan around the dolls. Instead of innocent playthings, we see inanimate victims to a tragedy splattered with blood. Instead of music we hear screams. Innocence is lost. I cannot wait to see what happens next. That is how Dark House welcomes us to its world.
A couple of young girls, can't be any more than 7 or 8 years old, stand at the closed gate in front of a big old house. You know the house; everybody knows the house. It is that one house in every neighborhood that everyone is scared of. These girls call this the scariest house and bet that no one would go inside. One of them, Claire, says she isn't scared and proceeds to open the gate and walk up to the door.
Before she turns the knob she hears noises inside. She proceeds inside; what she finds is a horrific scene of dead children (the scary house was actually an orphanage). In the kitchen stands the house mother, Miss Darrode, crying/screaming with her hands in the garbage disposal. Claire screams, falls over backwards, and ages 14 years right before our eyes.
That is only the first moments of this low-budget horror from director Darin Scott (Caught Up). Dark House is a gory haunted house story that wants to play up a psychological angle but gets caught in between. The script does not reach nearly as high as its conviction and the low-budget nature almost dictates a need for a decent amount of blood.
The story follows Claire, who never got over that day in the Darrode house. Her memories have been blocked and she has been told she must go back to face her fears, unlock the memories, and move forward with her life. This idea reminded me of the tree on Dagobah that Luke must confront in The Empire Strikes Back.
Claire is an acting student and while in class the group (comprised of the standard stereotypes: cute blond, goth girl, jock, wise ass, smart guy) is interrupted by a horror entrepreneur named Walston (the great Jeffrey Combs). He is looking for students to staff his new attraction set, where else, in the Darrode house. Claire sees an opportunity and they all find themselves with jobs.
This is where the action starts. The haunted house has been wired with holographic projectors that seem all too real. Predictably, things go wrong, people start dying, and Claire is seeing flashes of Miss Darrode all over the place.
I am not going to say how it ends. However, I will say that it makes no sense knowing what came before it. I understand what they were attempting to do. The problem is that it is a twist for the sake of having a twist as many things we were privy to throughout the film pointed in a different direction. It smacks of poor writing as they could have found a better alternative for diversion. It is rather frustrating.
On the other hand, the low budget effects and computer work have a certain charm to them. With the computer/hologram effects employed in the haunted house attraction, the CGI effects and blood splatter fit the aesthetic. Now there is a good example of using your budgetary limitations to your advantage!
The performances are almost universally terrible. Yes, they are trying, but be it a by-product of a moderately interesting but half-baked script or a lack of ability, I do not know. Their banter felt fake, the terror forced, and the fear well, not so frightening.
The bright spot in the cast is Jeffrey Combs, but was there going to be any doubt? He plays an over the top horror show runner, not unlike Geoffrey Rush in House on Haunted Hill. He takes the character to the edge of believability and makes it work. The guy has great charisma and knows just how to play the role effectively. He seems like a villain, but I do not feel he is, just intense and passionate to a fault. The guy is a horror legend.
You've heard of a love/hate reaction, right? Well, this one gets a like/hate reaction. There are some things to like here, nothing to love, and a good handful to hate (or at least strongly dislike). This movie is quite watchable and, under the right circumstances, can be enjoyable. Still, the majority probably won't care for it. If you are into this sort of thing, you know who you are.