Available on Blu-ray today, and making a limited theatrical run on Friday, is Victor Salva’s most recent film, Dark House, a strange odyssey about a young man named Victor (Luke Kleintank) who was been cursed with the psychic ability to foresee the deaths of the people he touches. When he unexpectedly inherits a remote house from his mentally ill mother, he piles in a van with friends and goes to investigate. What he finds is a house that seems to be changing location (!) and is being guarded by the imposing Seth (Tobin Bell) and his small army of lurching, demonic Axe Men.
CraveOnline was allowed to sit down with Tobin Bell to talk about his character, his process, and discuss what Dark House was really about with Charles Agron, the film’s producer and screenwriter. They talk about the undercurrent of darkness in the film, what was altered, and how good the acting was, all while the interviewer explains to them what Fitzcarraldo is.
CraveOnline: I liked the monsters in Dark House a lot…
Charles Agron: The Axe Men.
They were scary. I liked the way they lurched. When you were originally writing the Axe Men, how did you describe them?
CA: I’ll tell you. When I had written the film, the Axe Men were supposed to be a dark presence protecting the house from its secrets. And the Axe Men developed their lurch when Victor Salva got involved. That idea was actually his. He wanted to create something unnatural to scare people.
You say they were a dark presence. Were they originally more abstract?
CA: They were certainly characters. What it is is that these beings – as the story goes – Nick [the protagonist] thinks the secrets of his abilities are in that house, and they were a hurdle to get in there. Victor wanted to make them walk abstractly in order to create an uneasy feeling.
Tobin Bell: One of the things about those Axe Men that I found most fascinating that that the story, overall, is about the struggle between good and evil. That’s going on in the world. I think that’s one of the richest parts of Dark House. Y’know, we like to think of ourselves as being so advanced – the human race – as being technologically adept, and so in control and all that. So the fact that the Axe Men are a throwback to almost prehistorical, cave-dweller kinds of creatures… for me they kind of had an interesting subliminal content about just how far the human race has or had not advanced. And this film… It’s Seth [my character] who occupies this house, and keeps Nick from being able to live there. Even though Nick has inherited the house legally. He has an army of these guys. The fact that the story is – in my view… y’know Seth’s been in his house for thousands of years – or certainly for a long time – the nature of him is visually a throwback to paleolithic times.
Did you get to dictate the look of Seth, or was that all the director?
CA: Well for me, we were certainly trying to get it to look ominous. Y’know in terms of the set pieces and so forth. This house has survived an almost-supernatural disaster. And certainly we wanted to capture that feeling. And we were able to find a home – it wasn’t a set piece, it was a home – that had survived after years and years of dilapidation and no one taking care of it and so forth, and the funny thing was that, in the community we filmed in, there had been some major floods – gosh I think it was in the earl ’50s – and we were able to find a washed out road, and so forth. And it was interesting because the look we were trying to capture, based on the script and so forth, was almost a perfect match to the community we went to.
One of the plot points of the movie was a house moving around across land, and I was reminded of Wener Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo.
CA: I don’t know that movie! Tell me.
It’s a film about a madman in the Amazon jungle who is trying to drag a boat out of the river and over a land mass. And about how the quest ruins him.
CA: He’s trying to drive it or drag it?
Drag it. He connects vines to it and hauls it up out of the water. The moving house evoked all of that.
CA: Well I myself was highly influenced by the Twilight film series. And the house being able to move, or even when they’re trying to get away… they could be going south, but end up in the north. Those are the types of feelings that really create uneasiness. I love evoking that kind of insecure, scared feeling. That’s really what my goal was with this film.
The director, Victor Salva, has a co-screenwriting credit. Did you write any of it together?
CA: I wrote the original version, and then Victor got involved, and he got involved in the writing as well, and – in all honesty – once you get kind of to the set, it becomes a lot more collaborative. Because you’re dealing with a situation where, in the community, you gotta deal with what you have. So if the script doesn’t completely conform to the community, you gotta make a few changes and so forth. So it certainly is a process in terms of the writing with Victor.
Was anything major changed from your version to the end version?
CA: Not really! I’ll tell you this: It became a… This is the key difference: I feel like I’m a dark writer. And of course, Victor had success with his Jeepers films, and so forth, and of course he’s involved in horror history, so what he did was he really took the script and used his chemistry that he’s used before, and propped it up. So when you see the film, you see aspects. Aspects of Victor’s work will come out. They’ll feel familiar in some cases. And the things that seem out of his style, that’d be my influence. What I really wanted to do was create a character-based story, in which you really relate to the character and feel for them and so forth. So that when people were on this ride, they could relate to them.
I wanted to play with the notion of fate. Fate was important to me. Because everyone’s talking about how “My fate is gonna be grand, and this great thing is going to happen to me,” and I always thought, well, what if you put a negative, scary twist on fate? It doesn’t matter how good of a person you are, maybe your fate is something nefarious. Something evil. And that’s what I wanted to capture with this. Certainly once you create the idea of the house, it’s, uh… Nick wants to find out why he is the way he is. That’s why you have to create this dark presence. Protecting this house. Because at this point, he has to find out why he is the way he is. And only to find out that he is the pawn of something much greater. Mainly, being the challenge between good and evil.
TB: Charles mentioned the importance of the actors chosen to play these roles, and Luke Kleintank and Alex McKenna [the male and female leads] are… you can have the best, exciting scary movie you want to, but if you don’t care about the people who are in it, it doesn’t have the layering you’re looking for. And Alex and Luke are just marvelous, I think, in the way they draw you in and the credibility they bring to the two character. I found myself really drawn in by them and interested in them every time they were on screen. They have an ability you don’t always get from actors.
And you as well, of course! I’ve seen you, Mr. Bell, in several movies now, and you typically play very imposing characters, but you also have a kind of sympathetic nature, you bring forth. You seem to tap into the actual character. What sort of backstory did you have in your mind for Seth?
TB: Well, there are surprises in this film about who Seth actually is. He’s a very mysterious guy. When you first meet him,you got an impression from him that you called imposing, and hopefully that was the case, because I wanted him to be imposing. When the leads first arrive at the house, Seth stands between them and occupying that house. So he needs to be imposing. But you can be imposing and powerful, but there can bean undercurrent going on at the same time. And undercurrent of… something else. Something incredible. Something not just… He’s talking about “No, you can’t come in here,” but the fact is his reasons for it – and all of that – which are some of the marvelous twists and turns the film takes. Surprises. I think that’s one of the strengths of the film. You don’t exactly know what’s going on.
I think it’s timely too, because the world is full of people who look good and are not, and people who look not so good and are quite decent. As we saw in 2008 [chuckles].
Anyway, it was great to be part of a film that has an underlying story going on. The strength of the film is in that underlying story. And in the incredible, the very very strong performances of Alex McKenna and Luke Kleintank and Zack Ward and all the other actors who made up the team. And we just got along incredibly. Down working in the wood in full leather [laugh].
Seth is a mysterious character – and there is a big reveal as to his true nature. Some actors are encouraged to – or just like to – write or devise complex histories. Did you think of where Seth had been before this movie?
TB: Oh yeah! No question about it! As an actor – well, depending on why kind of actor you are and what you aspire to – you can go quite mad saying lines that you don’t really know what they mean. So you’d better… When you got out of bed this morning, Witney, you know the direction to your bathroom, and the direction to your kitchen, and the direction to your car, and how you got to work… all that’s filed away in your head. If Seth has to say things about his world and his life on screen, and he doesn’t know what that means, the specifics of that far… I do it for myself, so I don’t go crazy. I try to create a reality that exists. So I always try to fill in the details of “What do I do here” and “How long have I been doing it? Who am I? Where am I? What do I want?”
I was doing it to fulfill the character. But I was doing it to make myself feel secure and believable and not insane. I do it because it’s the way I’ve been trained and it’s the way that makes the most amount of sense. It’s a challenge to make things appear as if they’re happening for the first time. When in fact they’ve happened multiple times in rehearsal. It’s a fiction, but you don’t ever want people to think it’s a fiction. It’s alive. Same as happening in real time. If, for instance, you were to tell me right now that you were exhausted, Witney, “exhausted” can mean a lot of things. You can be emotionally exhausted, you can be physically exhausted, why are you exhausted? Were you up until 3 o’clock, were you drinking? Did you have a fight with your girlfriend? Has she been browbeating you? Y’know, if you don’t know that, how are you going to say “I am exhausted?” It can be said a lot of different kinds of ways.
So the detail that you worked out is incredibly important.
For both of you: What was the first record you bought with your own money?
TB: It was probably an Elvis Presley record. Or The Everly Brothers. It might have been “Wake Up Little Susie” or if it was Elvis, it was “Hound Dog.” [singing] You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog… cryin’ all the time. You got Jigsaw singin’ “Hound Dog” to ya.
CA: I think mine was The Doors. I always liked Jim Morrison. I always thought that was one cool cat. My friends and I used to buy some pretty ridiculous 8-tracks, but I think the first I bought with my own money woulda been The Door.
TB: Charles, who did the music for Dark House?
CA: Bennett Salvay. He did an unbelievable job.
TB: Yeah, the music’s fabulous.
Witney Seibold is the head film critic for Nerdist, and a contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.