Director: David Bruckner
Stars: Rebecca Hall, Stacy Martin, Vondie Curtis-Hall
Showing nationwide in multiplexes, The Night House isn’t the easily-digested Friday night thriller it sorta kinda looks like it is. It’s tougher than that. Moodier. Actually, downright morose. It takes you places and makes you think about depressing things. Death, mainly, and the paralysing fear that what comes after won’t save you. This is all to it’s credit, but take it as a warning, also. The Night House isn’t a casual proposition, in spite of it’s outward gloss.
Beth (a career-best Rebecca Hall) is recently widowed. Living by a lake in leafy upstate New York in the house her former husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) built for them (literally built, with his own hands), she’s been suddenly abandoned into a whirlpool of grief, anger, frustration and unanswered questions. Owen took their little boat out onto the water and shot himself. The Night House deals with the trauma of living in the aftermath of a suicide. How it feels to be caught in a figure-8 loop of unknowns, suddenly all by yourself.
The sudden amount of space afforded Beth is key to how this film works. She’s a teacher but, from her surroundings, clearly upper-middle class. The house is spacious, but what’s more, it’s a detached property on the verge of an abyss. She has a caring neighbour, Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall), and a concerned friend, Claire (Sarah Goldberg). But these people are still at arms-length or more, both emotionally and physically. At night, Beth might as well be the only person left on Earth.
The problem is, she isn’t. The Night House itemises a succession of vivid night terrors that blur Beth’s reality. She comes to believe that she is being haunted by Owen’s ghost and, in a too-real series of somnambulous adventures, discovers he was keeping dark secrets from her on the other side of the lake. Beth finds photos in his phone of other women, women that look strikingly similar to her, and mysterious plans for another house – a replica of their own but with a reverse floor plan. What other life do these disparate clues point toward?
There’s a sustained supernatural threat that binds all of this together and presents an acceptable explanation at the end, but The Night House is more powerful in its tantalising mysteries. In this it is most heart-breakingly representative of life and sudden loss, and the barrage of questions that invade us while tackling the mountain of grief. Hall is sensational. Beth is not an easily-liked character, nor should she be. We’re shown a very human and relatable tailspin that includes a lot of the mess that comes with bereveament; lashing out at people you should lean on; self-absorption; getting pissed off and wallowing. One can already sense Hall standing in line behind Collette, Pugh, Nyong’o and Moss as the latest incredible performer ready to get snubbed by the Academy because her work is in genre.
For director David Bruckner, this is a confident step along a consistent path. He showed himself as one-to-watch with standout anthology installments in V/H/S and Southbound, and then The Ritual showed he could capably carry a feature. The Night House sees him working within the veneer of Hollywood horror cinema, but without sacrificing himself to its more bubble-headed urges. His scares are long and they’re creative. The use of negative space here is damned effective. A scene involving a pillar might just be the more genuinely impactful and impressive ‘scare’ I’ve seen in a wide-release horror in years. The movie has game.
But it also loses something in it’s final act, when those explanations come calling and some of the answers require a lot of swallowing on the audience’s part. For Beth’s character, its a riveting ride to the end, especially a pivotal bathroom scene that walks a tightrope between naff and unnerving – and gets to the other side successfully. But so much of the power of The Night House is in the fear of the undefined, the treachery of the undisclosed. Giving shape to those negative spaces can’t help but lessen their force.
That might rather be the point.
Still, it is worth underscoring how – for a great deal of its running time – this is an immaculately crafted and emotionally resonant mystery, one that gets its claws in. Bruckner has shown his capacity to do these things with the finesse of peak Shyamalan or Verbinski. And Hall can be immensely proud of her raw performance here.