The Night House
Rebecca Hall is exceptional in a haunted house movie that's made with horror style as well as smarts, but also sometimes falls victim to its own indulgences.
August 19, 2021
The history of cinema is haunted by oh-so-many movies about oh-so-many ghost-riddled abodes, and the often-troubled and bereaved folks dwelling within them. The first clever move The Night House makes is recognising it's floating into busy spectral waters, then ensuring its tension stems from its living, breathing protagonist as much as the frights and fears she's forced to face. The film's second stellar step: casting Rebecca Hall (Godzilla vs Kong) as that central figure. An always-welcome addition to anything she's in — see also: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Christine and Tales From the Loop in just the past few years — she plays her tormented part here with brooding sorrow, reluctant vulnerability and a sharp, smart edge. She knows that grappling with loss involves being jolted in many different directions, and being subjected to bumps and jumps of the emotional kind, and that it's never easy to surrender to. Indeed, many of The Night House's surprises come from Hall as Beth, a schoolteacher whose life has been turned upside down by her husband Owen's (Evan Jonigkeit, The Empty Man) unexpected suicide. Clearly normally a no-nonsense type whether she's guiding pupils, dealing with their parents or navigating her personal life, she probes and questions everything that comes her way. As a result, her reactions — including just to herself — are constantly complex, thorny and compelling.
Since Owen's passing — using a gun she didn't know he had, and tainting a rowboat usually tethered to the lake house he built for them himself — Beth has cycled through the familiar stages of mourning. When she returns to work to her colleagues' astonishment, including her close friend Claire's (Sarah Goldberg, Barry), she's blunt with the oblivious mother of one of her students. At drinks, she also shocks her co-workers by discussing Owen's suicide note, admitting her home now seems different and obsessing over how much she really knew her husband. That last written missive ties back into one of Beth's past traumas, and her own dealings with the end that awaits us all. When she's alone at night, she's not sure that she can trust what she sees and hears, or tell whether she's awake or dreaming. Filling her time by sorting through Owen's things, she's also unsure what to make of the eerie sketches and books about the occult that sit among his possessions. And, she's thrown even further askew when she finds photos of brunette women that could be her doppelgängers; plans for a home just like hers, but mirrored; and a cascade of tidbits that cast her memories of her marriage into disarray.
Also among The Night House's savvy moves: understanding that grief really does change everything. Not only has Beth's life lost one of its brightest lights, but everything Owen once illuminated now keeps being cloaked in shadows he's not there to extinguish. She can't ask him about what she's uncovering, or feeling, or what it's digging up inside. She can't rely upon him, either, or keep trusting what she thought she'd already learned about him during their marriage. And, as being touched by death tends to evoke, she's spiralling down an a well of existential malaise. All ghost and haunted house movies are about confronting mortality, as are a long list of horror staples — zombies, vampires, serial killers, monsters and the like — and The Night House has a strong sense of terror about the the fact that life doesn't extended forever. Director David Bruckner (The Ritual) and screenwriting duo Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (Super Dark Times) infuse their film with foreboding, with Beth's demons, and also with a heightened state of anxiety. Cultivating an unsettling atmosphere via creepy sights, just as unnerving sounds and music cues, and Hall's showcase performance, they fill 108 minutes with the unease that lingers in us all, but that we spend the majority of our days burying deep inside.
That horror craftsmanship — the bristling, needling score by Ben Lovett (The Wolf of Snow Hollow); the exactingly timed sonic assaults that litter the sound design; the sinuous and disorienting cinematography by Elisha Christian (Max Richter's Sleep) — is expertly calibrated. The Night House is a movie made with horror style as well as smarts, and it's meticulously engineered to coax the desired response out of its audience. Looking for what's not there, and also what loiters when in spaces defined by their emptiness, is one of the movie's visual charms. Bruckner enjoys teasing, too, knowing that viewers will always want more time studying Hall's face and winding through Beth's labyrinthine home, and yet never falling too in love with one or the other. And, while there's never any guessing who the camera and the film adore, he populates The Night House with well-weighted portrayals all over. There are no cartoonish bit-parts and supporting performances, with Vondie Curtis-Hall (Harriet) bringing concern and sincerity as Beth's neighbour, Stacy Martin (Vox Lux) giving a source of mystery flesh and blood, and Goldberg as nuanced as Barry fans will recognise.
So many of his choices are nicely judged; however, when it comes to The Night House's plot twists, Bruckner is less careful about becoming prey to indulgence. Even though they're grounded in relatable, palpable sentiments, stirrings and musings, some of the movie's developments feel muddled, and also threaten to undercut the fine-tuned work going on elsewhere. Some of the repeated nightmarish symbols get splashed across the screen one or two too many times as well, although a love of all things hellishness is next leading Bruckner, Collins and Piotrowski to remaking Hellraiser. Here, when The Night House ruminates over psychological, existential and atmospheric horrors, it's as gripping as Hall always is. When it's less focused on being haunted by absence, and by death, it's a sillier, less shrewd and involving movie. While set in a house by a lake, it never stoops to Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock sending each other love letters, thankfully — but it also steps back from being as bleak at the last minute as it needed to be.