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Friday, June 18, 2010

DARK HOUSE -- movie review by porfle

[Note: Fangoria magazine has teamed up with Lightning Media and Blockbuster for a series of eight horror/thrillers which will be available exclusively on DVD, VOD, and digital download Sept. 28 under the "Fangoria FrightFest" banner. This film is part of that series.]

Loud, obnoxious, and dumb, DARK HOUSE (2009) is like a cross between a slasher flick, a ghost story, and a funhouse ride.  Its 80s-retro vibe even reminded me a little of Tobe Hooper's FUNHOUSE (along with films such as the obscure cult fave SILENT SCREAM), only minus most of the fun and plus a heaping helping of cheese.

The story opens with a little girl being dared by her friends to enter the neighborhood "scary house" (actually, it looks more quaintly picturesque than scary) and finding the bodies of seven murdered children strewn about.  Their foster mother, Miss Darrode (Diane Salinger), is in the kitchen grinding her hands off in the garbage disposal.  She thinks that by killing them, she's just saved the souls of her evil foster children because she is that most dreaded of all horror movie psychos--a religious fanatic! (Gasp!)

Fourteen years later, Claire (Meghan Ory) is, not surprisingly, undergoing therapy, and her doctor urges her to return to the house and confront the fears which continue to haunt her, hoping that she'll regain her buried memories of the event.  Conveniently enough, the members of her college drama class have just been hired by flamboyant horror showman Walston (Jeffrey Combs) to work in his brand new hologram-enhanced spookhouse attraction, which is located in none other than the Darrode house. 


Claire's friends are a sorry bunch of stereotypical kill fodder that we can't wait to see get theirs.  There's Rudy, the arrogant jock; Ariel, the dumb blonde nympho; Bruce, the nerd; Eldon, the black guy; and Lily, the Goth chick.  That's literally the extent of their character development, and from the first moment we see them in drama class "acting out" their true feelings for each other, we hate their guts.  Then Walston flits in to pitch his new haunted house idea to them, and we hate his guts, too, because the wonderful Jeffrey Combs has been given a truly awful character to portray and he tries way too hard to sell it.

The filmmakers tip their hand the moment we enter the house, when a misty black shape can be seen flitting about.  Then we get a demonstration of the holographic attractions, including a psycho clown with an axe, a mad scientist, a dungeon master, various zombie types, and, my favorite, a really freaky-looking young lady with long, sharp fingernails who reminded me of "The Angry Princess" from THIR13EN GHOSTS.  They aren't very scary but are fun to look at as they spring out at us as though we were watching a 3D movie.  (SCTV's Dr. Tongue would love it.) 

Naturally, the malevolent spirit of Miss Darrode enters the computer that runs everything and turns the holograms deadly.  There's not a whole lot of suspense and most of the characters are done away with rather summarily, one breaking her neck from a tumble down the stairs and a couple of others dying off-camera.  The first of the drama students to die (see if you can guess who) gets a mace to the head by that scariest of all horror characters, a medieval knight.  The resulting gore effect is done digitally instead of with good old-fashioned physical effects, which is always a disappointment--you just can't fake a genuine exploding head with CGI. 


The film's main asset is Diane Salenger as Miss Darrode.  She's pretty unsettling at first--an early jump-scare with her insane face shooting toward the camera is a real jolt--but she's overused to the point where all her prolonged screaming and twisty-faced mugging into the camera gets old.  (I'd love to see what a really good Japanese or Thai horror director could've done with her character.)  Before long, the jump-scares themselves begin to feel like someone continually goosing us until the effect is diminished.

Direction by Darin Scott is slick but doesn't quite capture the sort of fun-spooky William Castle atmosphere he seems to be going for.  Things get less dumb-fun and more serious in the final act, when the hidden secrets behind Miss Darrode's murder spree and Claire's amnesia are revealed, although the more we're shown the more confusing things seem to get.  I think I caught most of it but by then the film's dogged attempts to terrify me had become rather numbing.

I watched a screener of this movie so I can't comment on DVD specifics.  According to Fangoria.com, special features will include "a commentary track by Scott and producer Mark Sonoda, the 8 FANGORIA FRIGHTS cable special and the eight FrightFest trailers." 

DARK HOUSE is just diverting enough to be worth watching if you don't have anything better to do.  But you have to go into it the same way little Claire crept into the spooky old Darrode house all those years ago--expecting the worst.
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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I totally disagree with your review. I saw this film at Shriekfest (where it won best picture BTW) and it was a very scary, fun, joyride. The movie had me scared, laughing, then scared and laughing again. I left the small theater having truly had a good time, as did the other members of the audience. I highly recommend this movie if you can see it.

porfle said...

Yeah, I can see where it would be more fun to watch with an audience.