★★★★ out of ★★★★★
The Night House is a serious, heavy, and somber film full of mystery and dread. Rebecca Hall turns in a powerhouse performance of a woman trying to overcome her grief and understand why her husband killed himself at their idyllic lakeside house. As she uncovers the horrible truth, the secrets unleash a wrathful spirit who wants to claim her as well.
Directed by David Bruckner
Horror films that feature suicide as a central plot device are by nature, not particularly fun movies. That doesn’t mean that these types of movies can’t be riveting and entertaining, though. The Night House is a serious slow-burn ghost story, where high school academic counselor Beth (Rebecca Hall) is still mourning the suicide of her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit). A few days ago, Owen unexpectedly got into his rowboat at their lovely upstate New York lakehouse that he built, and blew his brains out with a pistol that Beth didn’t even know that they owned.
The bitter irony is that it is Beth is the partner who has struggled with depression and anxiety since a near-death experience that she had as a teenager. Owen was always the steady hand. It just didn’t make any sense. She was the one to break, not him. Beth’s friends try to rally around and comfort her to help her move on, but she is wracked by nightmares and is bound and determined to uncover whatever secrets Owen had.
Her determination uncovers some ugly coincidences. Owen apparently had a secret fetish for women who look just like her. He built a strange half-built house on the other side of the lake, apparently without her knowledge. And now that she is revealing some of the mystery about Owen, she begins to think the house is being haunted by him. Subtle things at first. Whispers in the night. A clunk. Footsteps. And then, a full-on poltergeist house-shaking occurs, and a very strange nighttime encounter with a group of panicking women in the woods.
Beth presses on, but that seems to feed the power of the ghost. The answers get uglier, and when the truth finally dawns on her, the ghost pulls out its full box of tricks and she is at the emotional and sanity breaking point.
It is terrific high-tension stuff. Rebecca Hall manages to play both an emotionally fragile woman, but is, at the same time is a strong presence who you do not want to mess with. She gets a chance to turn her anger on some of the other characters in the movie. She gets to go full alpha, an impressive and intimidating presence. She just seems to get bigger. It’s quite a yo-yo acting tour-de-force that pulls her out and draws her back.
The movie’s special effects are used sparingly, but when they show up, they are both subtle and hair-raising. There are a couple of jump-scares (totally earned) that made my flesh go cold. I could blame my oversized cinema soda but no… those were true goosebumps. It delivered really effective honest scares. It gets to the point where you are staring into the corners of the scene to see if Owen’s ghost is there or not. The best trick is the cutaway transparency that reveals a face or a hand. Really, really cool.
The supporting cast is terrific. Sarah Goldberg gets a gold star for playing Beth’s best friend, Claire, who stands by Beth even as she completely comes unglued. Everybody needs a bestie like Claire, who will stand by you even at peak madness. Vondie Curtis-Hall is noble and earnest as the helpful neighbor Mel. A good guy, that Mel. In movies like this, you really fear for the good people like Mel and Claire, and you really cross your fingers that they don’t get red-shirted.
Another supporting player who earns her keep is Madelyne (Stacy Martin) who plays one of Owen’s former mistresses. She resembles a younger, more petite version of Beth, and the scenes with the two of them crackle with tension. Interestingly, the script allows for a very interesting dynamic between the two of them, and it takes a very sophisticated a nuanced posture with these two. It could have been a bitchy shouting match, but instead, it is an adult conversation, where we learn a lot not just about Owen’s deceit, but also about Beth’s personality.
Even minor characters like Gary (David Abeles) and Heather (Christina Jackson) are well done as co-workers who are uneasy about how to handle Beth in a social situation. What do you say to a woman who has gone through that trauma? Their scene with her in a bar serves as an ideal exposition dump. A way to inform the audience (we are the proxies with Gary and Heather) about certain clues to Beth’s condition and motivations.
If I have any criticism for the film, it’s in the antagonist motivation. There’s an indirect cause and effect with the ghost, and given how well the rest of the story is told and stitched together, the backstory for the actions of Owen and the ghost is muddy. The dots are there. The story tries to connect the dots, but at the climax of the movie, you shouldn’t be wondering why these things are happening. Perhaps there are too many dots and not all of them connect.
In a conversation with Umberto Gonzalez The Wrap, director David Bruckner admitted that the film’s plot is “Labyrinthine”. He suggests that he wants to keep Beth wondering if what she is witnessing is real or a figment of her imagination, which is a 100% classic ghost story trope, but that much an audience can figure out. The main problem here is that the ghost isn’t necessarily who or what you think it is. Or wait, maybe it is. Is it both? It’s a muddle.
There is also a very interesting “mirror universe” conceit that the movie pulls off effectively, (You will see it in the trailer) but then does not bother to follow up in explaining what just happened. A moment where you stumble across yourself can be a bit mind-shattering and deserves a bit of explanation. At a certain point as the audience, you have to try and determine whether you are following the “normal universe” Beth, or the “mirror” Beth, but then that plot thread dissolves into the ether and you return to the more typical ghostly haunts. There is a very strong chance that I just missed the logic, (more mirror scares occur, and perhaps there was a thread there), but the movie throws so much at you that you try and assemble the mystery together and that is a puzzle piece that just doesn’t fit.
That is not to distract from the main takeaway of the movie. It is thrilling, performed well, with honestly scary moments, and apart from a bit of a messy climax, it is a very intelligent film. I appreciate that the plot avoids cliche. There are a few props that are introduced that look like they are going to play a major role, but they are a foreshadowing red herring. (I’m looking at you, scary statuette!) In the end, this is a Rebecca Hall showcase. She owns this movie and all the characters within it. If I am to draw a comparable film to this, I would suggest last year’s The Invisible Man tonally aligns with this one, and that’s pretty high praise.
The Night House is Rated R for language, violence, and adult themes. It opens in theaters across the country this weekend. It’s nice to see that Disney is still willing to release R-rated horror fare through their art-house branch Fox Searchlight, who had to wait through last year’s pandemic to get this out. It was worth the wait.