The Night House Synopsis: Beth (Rebecca Hall) is left alone in the lakeside home her husband built after her husband’s unexpected death. As she continues to mourn, disturbing visions of a presence in the house beckon towards her. But the harsh light of day washes away any proof of a haunting. Against the advice of her friends, she begins digging into his belongings, yearning for answers.
As one of the last unreleased remnants of Sundance 2020 (Fox Searchlight acquired the film for 12 million), The Night House finds director David Bruckner continuing the trend of arthouse horror efforts. The results serve as an inconsistent reminder of festival film’s best and worst aspects, but star Rebecca Hall’s powerhouse performance thankfully carries this so-so effort across the finish line.
Hall – who has made a career out of elevating Hollywood shlock (Godzilla vs. Kong and The Gift) and low-budget indies (2016’s Christine remains an underrated powerhouse), imbues her usual unrelenting conviction into the mourning widow Beth. Every longing stare and erratic emotional shift works naturally to sell the character’s slipping grasp on reality. Hall portrays Beth’s spiral with empathy and nuance, allowing both forces to ground the supernatural narrative in genuine human pain. The actor’s emotive work sets the groundwork for the entire film, often gluing the story together as it threatens to fall apart around her. Supporting players Vondie Curtis-Hall and Sarah Goldberg also offer assured performances as Beth’s empathetic friends.
The Night House is the definition of a mixed bag, but the film is an admirably composed mess at that. Bruckner’s brand of atmospheric dread fits the foreboding material like a glove. Similar to his last film, The Ritual, Bruckner utilizes dreary visuals and unnerving camera movements to dig his claws under the audience’s skin. I can’t tell you how shocked I was to see a director use the maddeningly cheap jump scare tactic for thoughtful reasons, with the chaotic jumps skillfully representing the jostling between two spectrums of reality. Teamed with Cinematographer Elisha Christian’s precise framing, the duo conveys the surrealist shocks while also capturing Beth’s emotional whirlwind with poignant intimacy.
Like so many indie genre efforts before it, The Night House stumbles in its blending of theme and horror. Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski draw a screenplay full of potent ideas. It’s just a shame that they rarely color the film’s ruminations on grief, depression, and the ways we confront those personal demons. Much of the film rests its laurels on surface-level representations of ideas, leaving little room for interpretive audiences to sink further past the obvious. I can’t imagine what this film would have looked like without Hall’s commanding performance, as many of the dramatic notes feel overly simplified despite the complex array of emotions.
Horror can work as an effective tool for intensifying and manifesting personal demons, yet the film’s screenplay rarely engages with the genre’s core tenets. Attempts at marrying the film’s themes with needless lore and overworked setpieces work to detract rather than enhance the ideas under the surface. This dynamic becomes especially true with the film’s oddly bombastic final third, which throws out the patient character-building for a rushed and over-simplified conclusion that doesn’t earn its dramatic crescendo.
Part of me wants to see a version of The Night House that leaves the supernatural elements behind in favor of more intricate character building. Still, this uneven genre fusion works ably enough to elicit an engaging descent into grief’s overwhelming hold on its victims.
The Night House is now playing in theaters.
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