At first glance, The Night House seems like a conventional, unsettling, haunted house film. A few bumps in the night here and a search for answers there. However, director David Bruckner and writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski draw upon the premise of the sudden loss of a loved one to look for something deeper than ghosts and ghouls. When someone dies, they sometimes leave secrets behind. Secrets that the living have to wrestle with uncovering. There’s the potential of dealing with skeletons in the closet of a person who you can’t get answers from. So, what do you do?
Beth (Rebecca Hall) is a schoolteacher who has suddenly lost her husband, Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) to violent suicide. There’s nothing left other than a vague, short, and uncomfortable note. Not to mention, the house that she and her deceased husband lived in is something that he made the plans for. Everything from the carpentry to how the stairs are arranged is a sad reminder of his presence. Much of the first act follows Beth as she tries to deal with things in the best way, given the circumstances. She watches old home videos, goes through Owen’s belongings, and drinks in trying to figure out this new normal. At work, her best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg) is considerably worried about her. Beth’s next-door neighbor, Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) lost his wife previously. Beth and Owen were kind to him, and he wants to repay the favor.
While the viewer gets acclimated to the impressive performance from Hall, things happen. Their favorite song plays out of nowhere, doors open, and Beth has weird dreams of a house identical to her own. So, the film indulges in themes of apparitions that viewers have seen in horror movies past. Where it succeeds is the layers it puts behind it, in addition to Hall’s performance. As Beth investigates Owen’s secrets, she sees she didn’t know him as well as she thought. Maybe things weren’t so perfect after all.
A lot of The Night House bets itself on Rebecca Hall’s acting, and she thrives in this role. Much of the film takes place with Beth, along with her thoughts, or chasing down ‘the ghost’ of the man she once loved. Hall fully invests into the grief and stages of acceptance that her character goes through. Sometimes, it’s tragic, angry, or even has a tinge of dark humor. Because of this, the audience will feel the full range of emotions that she exhibits as if Beth is a person they know. She’s not so warm to advice at points. There are even bits of hysteria when Beth sees morsels of behaviors that couldn’t possibly be the husband she knew. Everyone could stay that they’ll be there during bereavement, but ultimately, the person is alone to feel the full weight of that vacuum.
There are a lot of competing themes meshed into one movie. An interesting wrinkle in Beth’s backstory involving an accident is spoken about in the second act. As she tries to figure out why Owen took his own life, she turns inward at her own depression. Is there a way for a person to pass on their darkness to someone else? The film dips its toes into mysterious territory. Beth discovers Owen was into the supernatural, and a voodoo doll might be a key to something sinister. Also, other women might be involved, which calls the foundation of their marriage into question.
The Night House could have easily gone down the tried-and-true road of a vengeful spirit attacking a recent widow. It exceeds because it takes advantage of the atmospheric smell of dread that permeates around this big house. Elisha Christian’s cinematography and Ben Lovett’s score take full advantage of the isolation that Beth experiences. The lake house is a fertile ground for scares to arise. Including every dimly lit room or distance between the upper bedroom and front door. The best ones occur with the investigation of what could be. Bruckner does his best work to show that this is a singular experience from a person who you want to have closure.
While the audience is going to have questions with certain stylistic and story choices, The Night House basks in its vagueness. Losing something and ways to cope looks different for everyone. While it doesn’t provide the answers that you want (and may even irritate), the plot choices will make for an interesting discussion.
Photo Credit: Searchlight Pictures