MARCH 15, 2014
It's a shame Victor Salva is a deplorable human being, because it will forever overshadow the fact that he's got some strong ideas and is a technically proficient filmmaker. Remove his horrible past, and he's probably one of our "masters of horror" - but that's not ever going to happen. And so Dark House (formerly Haunted, as if that was any better) is the latest of his films to get a nothing release years after it was shot (2011 in this case), and unlike his last (Rosewood Lane) which I saw at a festival, this time I had the entire theater to myself. No one else wanted to take the plunge at 4:10 on Saturday afternoon I guess, and so I had one of my rare "private screenings" - the first one for a movie I actually somewhat enjoyed.
To be clear, it's not a great or even good movie. The plot's a mess, there's a bizarre, Dead Zone-y "if I touch you I will see the future" subplot that spoils nearly every kill (and, possibly inadvertently, the identity of one man's murderer, which should have been a shock), and this being a Salva movie you're often being subjected to young shirtless dudes, which is fine on its own but takes on a skeevy meaning when you consider his past (his victim in Clownhouse is introduced sans shirt). But there are some interesting ideas here, and the scare scenes that AREN'T completely spoiled by the flash-forwards are often suspenseful and exciting - the bulk of the menace stems from a group of shadowy "Axemen", who lumber around dragging their titular weapons and prove to be experts at throwing them into a target from dozens of feet away.
They're led by Tobin Bell, decked out in long brown hair (and a beard!), which gives him a more youthful appearance than horror fans are probably used to since he was always so sickly in the Saw films. Part of the fun is not knowing if he's a hero or a villain, so I won't spoil the answer here, but I will say that it's a shame he's not in the movie more - he disappears for a stretch after his introduction and only pops up intermittently after that. He's a commanding presence that is seemingly more choosy with his scripts than his modern horror icon peers (cough, Tony Todd, cough), as this is the first (released) film he's appeared in since the Saw series wrapped up in 2010. Good to see him again, especially since he's the only one in the movie I recognized besides Zach Ward and a cameo from the psychic lady from Jeepers Creepers, who runs a diner that our heroes stop at early on to get directions and a giant gob of exposition.
I got to thinking at one point, Salva is a lot like Wes Craven in that he has some really cool, fairly original ideas for horror movies but lacks a strong writing partner to get those ideas out clearly, since this movie approaches My Soul To Take-ian levels of "Whaaa?" at times. And like Wes, he has a crippling dependency on something that shows up in his films time and time again; with Wes it's the booby traps - with Salva it's out of nowhere exposition dumps and people who can see the future. The movie hides its true plot for a while and so I won't spoil it here (though I will say it seems Salva has been watching Supernatural), but the hero's ability to see how someone will die never really has much to do with it, far as I can tell. Yet the film stops cold early on to (sort of) explain how it works, with the obligatory "it doesn't always happen" explanation that keeps us from asking too many questions about how he's been able to go through life like this since he goes into near seizures when it happens (he wears fingerless gloves as well - I guess the power is in the palm?). As for the exposition, it happens over and over throughout the movie - someone will just offer up an entire history of a house or a mythological demon out of nowhere, and it's never NOT awkward. Library scenes, Victor! Let us read along with the characters!
Back to Jeepers, I couldn't help but wonder if he was cribbing some ideas from the seemingly never to be made third film. In addition to the future-seeing person (the old lady in the first, the girl in the 2nd), there's a strange obsession with the number 23, akin to that series' silly "Every 23 years for 23 days he feeds" thing. Our hero is 23, the route that they drive along is 23, someone says "23 is magic!", etc. At times it's more invasive than in that Jim Carrey movie, and much like the death visions, I'm not entirely sure what it had to do with the movie's actual plot. More successful is the forming of the group - our hero, his girlfriend, and their roommate are on the way to the house (which he just inherited) when they run into a group of surveyors (including Ward), who join them through thick and thin for the rest of the movie. It's the sort of thing you see in a lot of horror movies, where people tag along with total strangers and often get themselves killed rather than just be like "Hey, this is your problem, and I don't know you - goodbye". But here, there's actually a reason for it all, so I liked that, as it showed Salva actually puts some thought into justifying some seemingly unavoidable horror cliches.
Again, it's a shame he's a scumbag. I try my best to separate the "art" from the man, and it usually works - I know Chevy's an asshole, but I can still laugh at his role on Community even if I know he likely said something awful to a crew person before or after the camera started rolling. But Salva's crimes aren't forgivable (though, it should be noted that he did plead guilty and serve time for his crimes, unlike some others), and he seemingly dares you to be recalled of them with his frequent topless male characters (never/rarely females) and creepy sexual overtones (like in Powder when Goldblum says being touched by Powder was like the best sex he ever had), making it nearly impossible to separate the crimes from his films, which, if nothing else, are never cookie cutter genre filler. They might not be perfect (even the first Jeepers has problems), but they're always memorable, which is more than I can say for any number of other filmmakers in the genre. I wouldn't blame anyone for not wanting to support this or any of his other films (in fact I almost wish they were awful so it'd be easier to write him off entirely), but if you can reconcile your feelings about him and what he's done, you'll find something that's nowhere near as generic as its title suggests. That alone is (quite sadly) enough for some mild appreciation these days.
What say you?