Horror director Victor Salva has been analogizing the paranormal with Christianity for nearly two decades, and his best work highlights religion’s inherent supernaturalism by wrestling bibilical narratives into genre-movie contexts. Even a work as straightforward as Powder, in which an ostracized albino with telekinetic powers and a benevolent outlook is fervently depicted as a Christ figure, merges the supernatural and the theological in ways that are simultaneously devotional and seditious. His films may not be rife with profound philosophical or spiritual inquiry, but there’s something amusing and precociously insightful about his boyish forays into the unknown, evidenced in the cheeky meta commentary of Jeepers Creepers and the supremely weird underpinnings of the underrated The Nature of the Beast, which conflates pathology and addiction with dangerous male egos and Old Testament-style wrath.
Lest he start to sound like an unsung master, Salva is barely above your average cine-journeyman, but his stylistic personality seems to elevate rote material. That’s not the case with his latest film, Dark House, a backwoods slasher that resides at the intersection of The Evil Dead, an episode of Supernatural, and the Book of Revelations. In the film, Nick (Luke Kleintank), a 23-year-old with the ability to foresee the death of any person he touches, explores a haunted house with his best friend, Ryan (Anthony Rey Perez), and girlfriend, Eve (Alex McKenna), in hopes that it holds secrets about his past. The film exhibits a few of Salva’s thematic tics, but his vision lacks for decisiveness. While there’s an undercurrent of homoeroticism to Nick and Ryan’s relationship, that subtextual charge isn’t aimed at patriarchal discomforts as it is in Jeepers Creepers. Also compromising is the film’s narrative architecture, which is gripped by inconsistency: The particulars of Nick’s powers are constantly being redefined (at first he only foresees death, then he’s telling the future of his unborn child and reading the mind of a tree), while the big bad ghoulie who’s seemingly confined within the walls of his ancestral home somehow has the ability to visit the ventilation shafts of insane asylums and roadside diners. Characters are introduced and dispensed of with a dispiriting lack of fanfare, and the lazy twist ending belies the irony it strives for with its need to leave audiences with a lack of closure.
Such narrative deficiencies might have been permissible if Dark House evinced even an iota of the Cormanesque zest for subversion found in Salva’s earlier work. The dialogue is knowing and the action sequences are elaborate, but only in ways that advance the shady story toward its hokey denouement, as if Salva couldn’t wait to get the whole thing over with. Even as the film reveals itself to be a literal battle between heaven and hell, it’s not good or evil that reigns supreme, but rather the filmmaker’s ambivalence. The pleasure Salva seemed to take in pairing supernaturalism with Western religion, capriciously depicted in Jeepers Creepers and Powder, is nowhere to be found in Dark House, which deals in self-serious gestures (Nick realizes his girlfriend is “the one” when he touches her hand and doesn’t see her death) and a distinct lack of humor to tell a dull paranormal tale with religious window dressing. This might be attributed to the reportedly plagued production (early scenes featuring objects flying directly toward the camera suggest Dark House was envisioned as a 3D spectacle before being relegated to VOD and a limited theatrical run), but all that hints to is Salva’s shortage of resiliency and imagination in the face adversity. His lack of faith is indeed disturbing.