By Thomas M. Puhr.

It’s fun to watch the former enfant terrible explore his obsessions through low stakes genre fare. Sign me up for more.”

At first glance, Neil LaBute’s Fear the Night (2023) seems like a far cry from his early films, let alone from his theater work. You’d think a home invasion thriller would have little in common – at least superficially – with the caustic, sexually frank In the Company of Men (1997), Your Friends and Neighbors (1998), or The Shape of Things (2003). But followers of the writer-director know that even his most mainstream releases – Lakeview Terrace (2008), Death at a Funeral (2010), and yes, even The Wicker Man (2006) – bear traces of his career-long obsession with the terrible things men and women do to each other (ridicule the latter all you want, but his reimagining of the cult island as a matriarchal utopia is pretty damn fun). Fear the Night is an extreme distillation of a battle-of-the-sexes: Women are inside an isolated house, and homicidal men are outside. One of the women is ex-military. Let the games begin.

Maggie Q (who also produces) stars as troubled veteran Tes, who joins her two sisters – the uptight Beth (Kat Foster) and empathetic Rose (Highdee Kuan) – and some other friends at her parents’ remote, sprawling property for Rose’s bachelorette party. During the group’s pitstop for alcohol, three local men – led by the clearly unhinged Perry (Travis Hammer) – harass them. Tes steps in, puts the jerks in their place (“You boys just taking a break from getting shitfaced, or are you excited to look at someone other than your sister?” she asks), and keys Perry’s car for good measure. Now, it doesn’t take much for slack-jawed yokels to fly off the handle and into a murderous rage in a genre film, but even by these standards the convenience store altercation feels pretty tame. So when Perry and company show up at the house wearing masks and wielding bows and arrows, it seems like a bit of an overreaction. Tes thinks so, too. Surely, she intuits, the men are after something else: something in the house.

It’s a classic setup that reaches all the way back to Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959). The question, as always, is whether or not it is done well (and, in this case, whether or not LaBute’s distinct voice isn’t lost in the mix). Early scenes offer some promise and even hint at broad comedy. When Tes’ co-partiers ask about the training courses she teaches, she says “I’m like Mr. Miyagi with tits.” In most films, the (admittedly cringy) punchline would end there, but the writer-director sneaks in that little jab he does so well; Tes gauges her audience’s stoic reaction and adds, “What’s not landing for you?” But once the bodies start dropping, the filmmaker cuts most of the banter, his dialogue propelling the plot rather than fleshing out the characters. Alas, a few of Tes’ lines hurt (and not in that good LaBute way). “Someone out there is slashing our tires,” she says, “So we don’t leave.” (Silly me, I thought the villains were slashing the tires to help the women escape faster.) To her credit, Q delivers such dialogue with a conviction that keeps the proceedings afloat. She lifts the movie through these rough spots, effortlessly inhabiting her badass role by playing it straight.

Fear the Night trailer

On his end, LaBute keeps the action fast, ugly, and quasi-realistic; you almost get the sense that he’s pushing back against the likes of the hyper-choreographed John Wick series, and not just because of obvious budgetary constraints. A climactic knife fight, for instance, lasts all of thirty seconds and is presented via a static, uninterrupted wide-angle shot. We can actually see the fight, and it looks like a real one at that. Its presentation almost feels radical. Other formal devices don’t work as well; frequent time-stamp title cards – presented over a black screen – defuse much of the tension. 

Within the vast spectrum separating, say, Mike Flanagan’s Hush (2016) from Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (2015), Fear the Night hovers somewhere in the middle; LaBute has no patience for Flanagan’s trite grandstanding, but he also lacks Saulnier’s meticulous framing. So while we don’t get any pedantic monologues about the power of hope and perseverance, we also miss out on any set pieces that even approach what Saulnier accomplished with Green Room’s bunker shootout. We do, however, get a pretty good visual gag: a banner from the bachelorette party, “SAME PENIS FOREVER,” slyly commenting on the dated gender dynamics that fuel many of these thrillers. Fear the Night could have used a heavier dose of that punchy attitude.

We’re in the midst of a prolific period in LaBute’s film career (three features within the past two years). And while the results vary in quality, it’s fun to watch the former enfant terrible explore his obsessions through low stakes genre fare. Sign me up for more. 

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.

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