Horror is typically very good or very bad, usually depending on the production’s budget. When the money is there the film gets the name talent, varied locations and horrific (in a good way) special effects. When the money is lacking then almost every aspect of the movie suffers. Once in a while, however, a smaller horror film gets it right by not trying to achieve more than its limited budget. Dark House is one of those horror movies that is better than it has a right to be. It doesn’t have the kind of lingering dread that the very best in horror offer, but what it lacks in scares it makes up for in an overall quality film.

Nick Di Santo (Luke Kleintank) has the ability to see the horrible deaths people will die just by laying his hands on them. He doesn’t know where this dark power comes from, but he believes the father he never knew might have answers. When Nick’s mother dies, she leaves him the deed to a house that he’s always seen in his mind and brought into the world via his drawings throughout his entire life. Thinking that the house might have clues as to who his father is, Nick sets out with his girlfriend, Eve (Alex McKenna), and his best friend, Ryan (Anthony Rey Perez), to find the structure. Along the way they team up with a local surveyors Chris (Zack Ward), Lillith (Lacey Anzelc) and Sam (Ethan S. Smith). When they discover the house, however, they find it occupied by a creepy man named Seth (Tobin Bell), who wields an axe and can seemingly command an army of axe-wielding crazies, who all seem tied to the house. It’s up to Nick and his friends to elude the attackers and escape the power of the house, which seems to draw him closer and closer with each step he takes away from it.

Dark House is a competent horror piece that defies expectations in almost every way. For an unrecognizable cast, excluding Tobin Bell, the acting is above average. The horror is also adequately disquieting, without relying too heavily on cheap scares, like jump cuts and loud sounds. Most of all, however, the filmmakers knew how to operate within their budget to get their point across. For instance, one of the deaths Nick sees is a soldier dying in battle. Rather than try to recreate a modern battlefield, the film instead shows a soldier flying through the air, presumably caught in an explosion. It’s smart choices like this that give the film a bigger budget feel. So when characters keep returning to the same location, it never feels like it’s due to a lack of shooting locations, but instead due to an organic plot convention.

Regrettably, Dark House can’t completely escape its low-budget-horror trappings. The story is only utilitarian and the characters are all one-dimensional, but that’s forgivable given the genre. It’s only in sporadic elements that the low budget roots show, like the costuming and character design of the initial threat in the film, which are just a bunch of guys wearing dusters and wielding axes. The idea is thrilling, but it falls short of horror. The filmmakers make the most of it by having the actors move in strange ways, but it’s a poor alternative to an actual scary monster. Finally, perhaps to make the film seem denser than it really is, the filmmakers added elements to the movie that are extraneous and that sometimes defy the established rules of the story. For example, Nick is able to see the future death of people by touching them, but then later he’s able to see the past deaths of people by touching the tree they were hanged from. It’s a striking moment in the film, but it also doesn’t fit naturally.

The biggest issue horror fans may have with Dark House is that the horror tapers off dramatically half way through the film. It starts off great, establishing an eerie mood and touching on all the aspects of humanity that would perturb an individual, like insanity and claustrophobia. Tobin Bell also does a fantastic job in giving his character a menacing edge with his subtle performance. But once the axe men show up, the fear is brought down to manageable levels. Ultimately, Dark House still qualifies technically as a horror movie, but audiences will probably leave this film having watched a solid psychological thriller rather than having watched a movie that actually scared them.