David Bruckner’s The Night House crawls its way under your skin with a powerful lead performance and frightening mysteries, if not the greatest answers.
The Night House is a psychological horror film directed by David Bruckner, with a screenplay by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski. Rebecca Hall stars as Beth, a school teacher who recently lost her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) to suicide. Now living alone at their lake house, she begins to experience strange, unexplained phenomena, such as loud banging, fresh footprints appearing on her deck, and dreams of a mirrored replicate of her house. As Beth investigates these events, she learns dark secrets about Owen that led to his death, as well as possibly having a connection to a traumatic event in her past.
Despite having a big name like Rebecca Hall in the starring role, I’m a little disappointed to see this new horror film flying relatively under the radar. I suspect that the reason for this is partially due to what audiences may have been expecting going in. The Night House does not rely on traditional tropes or tactics to get a scare out of its viewers. It’s a slow, tense, admirably restrained burn that digs itself underneath your skin little by little. Dread and suspense seep through nearly every frame spent in the titular house at night, and leave the viewer paranoid by how subtly certain scares appear. There are several instances where I could swear something was moving in the corner of the screen but could never be sure. Sometimes the source of the scare is in plain sight, but it’s so sneakily placed that it took me several seconds to even notice it.
At the center of everything is Beth’s emotional anguish as she unravels a mystery she may come to wish remained unsolved. Her husband’s suicide has already put her in a fragile state of mind, and the unseen forces in the house are fully aware of this and use it to torment her further. This makes for my favorite kind of horror, that being when the horrors within and around a character are feeding off of each other. It gets even worse when we learn about something that happened to her years ago, an event that spawned a sort of nihilistic misery in her well before Owen’s death. Rebecca Hall gives the best performance I’ve seen from an actress so far this year. It is painful to watch her character react and break down from everything piling onto her, when she’s already coming from an understandably bitter place. Such bitterness is illustrated by how she interacts with her friends, or during a confrontation early on between her and the mother of one of her students.
The Night House is primarily about coping with grief, as well as the fear of what’s waiting for us when our own time in this world runs out. The supernatural forces at play are symbolic of the pull Beth feels towards her despair, with friends and strangers alike getting caught in that crossfire. These themes work with Bruckner’s directing to form one of the most chilling, unnerving experiences I’ve had with a new release in years. Bruckner’s love for horror is incredibly clear, and he knows how to create a dark and near-hopeless atmosphere that rivals that of a Mike Flanagan film. Beth’s dream sequences also feel suitably otherworldly, and they’re where cinematographer Elisha Christian is at his best with his sinister lighting at night and slightly distorted imagery.
Where all this momentum begins to falter is in the ending stretch, when we get our answers as to what’s behind everything. It’s not bad whatsoever; in fact, the core idea behind the reveal is brilliant. But around that core idea, there are other details that either don’t fully add up or come across as extraneous for the sake of adding more to the mystery. It’s a little more complicated than it probably needed to be to work. The ending also backs out from fully committing to a more depressing ending that the rest of the picture seemed to be working towards. It’s almost as if the ending was initially supposed to go one way but then was re-written out of fear that audiences would leave the theater too upset. This doesn’t ruin the entire experience by any stretch, and the complaint here is partially more of a personal preference on my part (the heartless individual that I am). But it did contribute to the final twenty or so minutes being my least favorite part of the film.
But given how great the rest of The Night House is until that point, a slightly lesser conclusion can only go so far in damaging the work as a whole. Sometimes a film has such perfect buildup that it can survive when the payoff doesn’t quite match up, and that’s very much the case here. With a top-tier performance from Hall, an unsettling and thoughtful story, and direction that makes me excited to see Bruckner’s next project, this is the kind of horror experience that I want more of. I hope that it can get more buzz soon.