Genre icon Jeffrey Combs has played his share of tortured souls — from his breakout in 1985 as the driven Dr. Herbert West in Re-Animator to his pithy noir-style Det. Garret in last year's Parasomnia, he's proven he's got gravitas. That's why it's so much fun to see him twirling a silver-tipped cane and grinning from ear-to-ear while hawking his haunted wares as an overeager entrepreneur in the harrowing halls of director Darin Scott's Dark House.
Combs plays the nattily-dressed, fast-talking Walston Rey, a likeable opportunist who waltzes in one day and reopens the doors of the scariest structure in town… for business. Exploiting the pastoral home's horrible past, Walston intends to have the best maze of terror in the nation. He's already got a string of them, but none can rival his latest purchase.
Walston is well aware that years ago, religious zealot Mrs. Darrode (wraithlike Diane Salinger from Rest Stop and TV's "Carnivale") inexplicably butchered the orphaned tots in her care and then killed herself most painfully: it's the perfect foundation for a new 'house of horrors' tourist attraction. Walston employs a troupe of budding actors, one of whom, he isn't aware, witnessed the massacre. Claire (brunet beauty Meghan Ory) is afraid to return, but in the end she decides it's the ideal opportunity to face her demons for once and for all.
However "all" aren't in on Claire's plan. Her fellow thesps — main squeeze Rudy (Matt Cohen), blonde bimbo frenemy Ariel (Bevin Prince), sister in suffering Lily (Shelly Cole), wiseass Bruce (Ryan Melander), and levelheaded Eldon (Danso Gordon) — have no idea that younger Claire was the sole survivor of the town's most terrible crime, because she was adopted and her name was changed to protect her identity.
As the actors assemble in the manor for their first night of work in their parts as costumed guides, they're introduced to Walston's employees. Moreton (Scott Whyte), channeling the geeky hipster hotness of Johnny Depp complete with specs and soul patch, is the enthusiastic sidekick to Walston's emcee, while libidinous lesbian Samantha (Meghan Maureen McDonough) handles the talent in more ways than one. Behind the scenes in the basement is the maestro of horrifying holograms, computer programmer Harris Payne (Michael Albala), and covering it all from top to bottom are reporters Reed (Ian Reed Kesler) and Paula (Erin Cummings). Now that the potential victims are properly assembled, the gallery of ghouls inside locks everyone in tight and unleashes their damnedest frights.
The ghosts, demons, banshees and bogeymen of the Dark House are nothing short of spectacular. It's nice to not only see some imagination and innovation when it comes to spooky specters and memories of murder, but to see the ideas fully realized. The conceit of Dark House is nothing special, but its execution certainly is. Director Scott competently juggles a circus-like array of actors, scenarios, flashbacks, jokes and gruesome deaths in a brisk, brutal 85 minutes. Not only are the beats all in place, but so is the score, cinematography, CG and set design. The colors are deep, rich, and vibrant; DP Philip Lee's composition is masterful and wholly cinematic — such a welcome change from the usual de-saturated green pallor and shaky-cam.
Those representing Good (Claire) and Evil (Mrs. Darrode) are excellent and the actors deserve all due credit, but the standouts in supporting roles are definitely Combs, Whyte, and Cole. Each of them adds depth and texture to characters that could easily come across cardboard. Combs chews scenery, but he does it with rakish, fun-loving panache; Whyte is encumbered with costume, affectation and accoutrement, but his indisputable spirit shines through; and Cole plays the stereotypical gloomy goth girl with droll wit and intelligence.
Shot in just 18 days, Dark House looks, sounds and feels a lot better than the majority of studio horror films I see in any given year. I have a few minor quibbles (some unnecessarily unflattering / ageing lighting on the young women, plus a padded climax that softens the existing impact of a certain revelation) but overall, I've got to say this movie delivers on every expected level.
If you enjoy old-fashioned haunted house flicks with plenty of snarky humor, unabashed boo-scares, and grand guignol gore, step into Dark House.