It’s been a long time since a new movie from Neil LaBute was an indie-film event—even two new movies in two weeks, as he’s just delivered with Out of the Blue and House of Darkness. The writer-director debuted as part of the 1990s Sundance-fueled wave of independent filmmakers with his 1997 feature In the Company of Men, which announced a bold and controversial new voice. LaBute’s cynicism and misanthropy was often bracing, even if his depiction of misogyny could blur the line between critique and endorsement. LaBute was tackling toxic masculinity before the widespread use of that term, and films like In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors, and The Shape of Things were alternately thought-provoking and infuriating.
But like a lot of successful independent filmmakers, LaBute made a bumpy transition to the mainstream, working as a director-for-hire on forgettable efforts like the comedy remake Death at a Funeral and the thriller Lakeview Terrace. His 2006 Nicolas Cage-starring version of The Wicker Man has become notorious for its entertaining awfulness. Those movies aren’t bold or challenging, just misguided.
Since then, LaBute has worked extensively in TV, as the creator of Syfy series Van Helsing and the showrunner of The I-Land, possibly the worst-reviewed series in Netflix history. He’s also continued to work in theater, where he got his start and where most of his most provocative ideas seem to have gone, although there have been cancellations of some of his plays amid rumors of inappropriate behavior. Before this current doubleheader, he hadn’t written or directed a feature film since 2015’s Dirty Weekend.
It would be great to report that Out of the Blue and House of Darkness represent a return to form for LaBute, or even that they’re worth watching, but neither movie reaches that level. Of the two, House of Darkness engages more directly with LaBute’s familiar themes of gender and sexual politics, although both are about devious, dangerous women manipulating dumb, horny men. In Out of the Blue, LaBute applies those themes to a shoddy film noir pastiche, while in House of Darkness, he places them in a slightly more effective Gothic mood piece. In both cases, he’s let down by his own clumsy writing, low production values, and weak performances.
Both movies also wear their literary influences on their sleeves, and in Out of the Blue, the characters reference James M. Cain’s classic crime novel The Postman Always Rings Twice early and often. It’s of special interest to the improbably named Marilyn Chambers (Diane Kruger), an unhappy housewife who’s new to the small Rhode Island town where Connor Bates (Ray Nicholson) has spent most of his life. The older woman and younger man are instantly drawn to each other when they first meet at a secluded beach, and when Marilyn visits Connor at his library job, seeking crime stories about women killing their husbands, he steers her toward Cain.
Anyone can guess where this is going, but LaBute draws out the plodding romance with antiseptic, deeply unerotic sex scenes, while Marilyn meekly demurs about the bruises that she says come from her wealthy, abusive husband. When Connor finally suggests that he could kill Marilyn’s husband while she and her teenage stepdaughter (Chase Sui Wonders) are out of town, it almost sounds like an afterthought. Nicholson (whose father Jack starred in the 1981 film version of The Postman Always Rings Twice) and Kruger have no chemistry, and Nicholson fails to convey Connor’s romantic and sexual passion, or his anguish over a past that involves a stint in prison for an impulsive act of violence.
LaBute indicates the passage of time with a steady stream of title cards that say things like “Not long after that” and “Two or three weeks later,” and Hank Azaria gives an over-the-top performance as Connor’s probation officer, who spends the entire movie wearing a windbreaker with “probation” written on the back in large capital letters. Connor enjoys watching old noir movies on TV (albeit in the wrong aspect ratio), but Out of the Blue, which has all the visual sophistication of a detergent commercial, looks nothing like those classics. Even if LaBute is aiming for a campy noir parody, he misses the mark.
There’s more visual flair to House of Darkness, although it takes place entirely in a single location, a remote, lavish mansion that main character Hap (Justin Long) refers to as a “castle” when he and his date, Mina (Kate Bosworth), first pull up. House of Darkness opens with its own title card, reading “Once upon a time,” and LaBute presents it a bit like a fable, complete with its own moral lesson. Mina wears a conspicuous choker around her neck, and she introduces Hap to her sister Lucy (regular LaBute collaborator Gia Crovatin, who’s also in Out of the Blue), so it’s not like LaBute is hiding this movie’s literary influence, either.
Hap, however, doesn’t seem to be familiar with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, so he doesn’t realize what fate awaits him at the end of the movie. He just thinks he’s going to get laid, after meeting Mina at a bar and offering to drive her home. She encourages this idea at first, although she always pulls back before things go too far, instead letting Hap blather on about sex and relationships, occasionally catching him in small lies or obfuscations. He’s a stereotype of a sexist hypocrite, who calls himself “one of the good guys” but immediately assumes that the sisters will be up for a threesome.
More than Dracula, LaBute’s influences in House of Darkness seem to be movies like Hard Candy and Promising Young Woman, but his circular dialogue, which Long delivers in an annoying stammer, ultimately says nothing. Bosworth is miscast as the sultry, otherworldly seductress, and House of Darkness takes 88 minutes for a wind-up that would be dispatched in the pre-credits scene of a typical vampire movie. It’s less vapid and cheap-looking than Out of the Blue, but it’s still only a pale reflection of the viscerally upsetting work that made the film world take notice of LaBute 25 years ago.
Out of the Blue (now playing in select theaters and on VOD): C-
House of Darkness (opens in select theaters September 9; on VOD September 13): C