A year and a half after debuting at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, a hefty Searchlight Pictures acquisition finally sees the light of day, which is to say the dark of the movie theater. The atmospheric and genuinely chilling The Night House is half tantalizing mystery and half psychological horror but wholly gripping all the way through. Like Netflix’s The Woman in the Window from earlier this year, the film depicts a female protagonist who isolates herself from the rest of the world to pull a nagging thread that threatens to unravel everything around her. Just as Amy Adams knocked it out of the park in that unfairly maligned Netflix offering, Rebecca Hall turns in a fiercely committed performance that puts us firmly within her fractured psyche.
Hall plays Beth, a high school teacher failing to make sense of the abrupt suicide of Owen (Evan Jonigkeit), her loving husband of almost 15 years. Retreating to the ornate lake house that he built for them before their marriage, she goes through mementos like wedding videos and love notes before happening upon the blueprints for their luxurious home. Strange inscriptions and evidence of hidden rooms prompt Beth to dig deeper, which in turn causes sleeplessness and disturbing visions that only get her more involved in the dark secrets that are waiting to be uncovered. Beth’s new obsession disturbs friends like Claire (Sarah Goldberg) and neighbors like Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) alike, begging the question if all of these supernatural connections are simply a matter of Beth’s grief-stricken imagination.
Directed by David Bruckner, veteran of horror anthology showcases like V/H/S and Southbound, The Night House doesn’t have the sturdiest script around but makes up for the more ungainly plot elements with some well earned scares. Yes, there are jump scares and yes, some of them are cheaper than others, but the movie also provides more drawn-out sequences that give us time to study the frame and investigate the shadows that may or may not be there. While the film has slightly different goals and intentions than last year’s The Invisible Man, both movies share a proclivity for negative space in the frame, suggesting the evil that may lurk there and allowing our imagination to fill the chasm. The Night House makes even more evocative use of moving shadows and shifting rooms, to profoundly creepy and unsettling effect.
Bruckner also thematically and visually quotes several films of a master filmmaker not traditionally associated with the horror genre: Ingmar Bergman. His narrative invokes Jungian duality and doppelgängers in ways that brought me right back to Bergman’s endlessly debated masterwork Persona. A shot late in the film between Beth and a deathly figure is composed and choreographed so similarly to the iconic chess scene in The Seventh Seal that I find it impossible for it not to be intentional. More obliquely, the crimson-tinged third act of The Night House recalls the inescapable reddish rue of Cries and Whispers and all of its stirring underpinnings. It’s heartening to see directors implement concepts of classic cinema so seamlessly into a modern ghost tale.
Since appearing in The Prestige 15 years ago, Rebecca Hall has become one of the most captivating actresses around and here, she proves that she can hold a movie together with little help from other performers. Her Beth isn’t always likable in the traditional sense — she’s not afraid to confront people and make them uncomfortable if it seems warranted –but her struggle to put these twisted puzzle pieces together is always engaging. Hall wears the fears and insecurities of her characters with such boldness that it’s often inspiring; if her characters can overcome their baggage and damage, perhaps we can too. When Bruckner introduced the film at Sundance, he said it’s “about which idea you find scarier: that ghosts exist, or that they don’t.” The Night House has the capacity to haunt properly, no matter which option you choose.
Score – 3.5/5
New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Candyman, a supernatural slasher sequel starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Teyonah Parris about a Chicago-based group of young professionals who awaken the titular bogeyman once again.
Streaming on Hulu is Vacation Friends, a comedy starring John Cena and Lil Rel Howery about a couple whose wedding is crashed by a pair of casual friends from a vacation.
Available on Netflix is He’s All That, a gender-swapped remake starring Addison Rae and Tanner Buchanan about a high school girl who accepts a challenge to turn the school’s least popular boy into prom king.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup