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What happens to us when we die? People from different religions, cultures, and backgrounds all have different answers to give to that question, but the truth will forever be beyond us since anyone who knows personally and definitively isn’t in a position to pass on the information. And that, like anything in the realm of the unknown, is scary. Every single one of us will eventually pull the curtain back on that mystery, but there is a part of all of us that is perpetually terrified about what comes after life – be it a great something or a great nothing.
This existential fear is key to a massive fraction of stories in the horror genre (it’s at the heart of every single ghost story, for example), but in recognizing that ubiquity, it’s always impressive to see a film that discovers a new angle on the conversation and brings something fresh to the table. This is the great accomplishment of David Bruckner’s The Night House. Featuring a phenomenal turn from Rebecca Hall, some fascinating production design and cinematography, and a gripping story with a killer ending, the movie has a lot to say about grief and the nature of death, and is as intellectually satisfying as it is nerve-racking.
Based on an original screenplay by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, The Night House introduces audiences to Beth (Rebecca Hall), a high school teacher, as she reels from personal tragedy: her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) having recently and unexpectedly died. Being a stoic and possessing a blunt personality, she publicly attempts to keep her life moving – continuing to go to work, and expressing great candor with her colleagues – but privately, living alone in the lake house Owen built for them, she self-medicates by drinking and can’t escape her memories.
Beth’s grief becomes paired with anxious fascination when she begins to experience strange events in her home at night. As she drifts off to sleep, the stereo system in the living room turns itself on, and she gets mysterious messages on her phone, making her question if Owen’s spirit is still with her. The events inspire her to start looking through her husband’s possessions to try and find any answers – an activity from which her best friend (Sarah Goldberg) attempts to dissuade her – but what she discovers only serves to disturb her further. She learns that Owen had some strange habits and was in the process of building a mysterious house with a mirrored floorplan across the lake prior to his passing.
The mystery at the heart of The Night House is both fascinating and upsetting.
That plot description is a bare bones version of The Night House, which is very much intentional given that this is a cinematic experience best absorbed without prior knowledge of the big beats or expectations for specific moments. It takes less than 20 minutes for the movie to hit you with its first emotional shock, and it proves to be one of many that are evoked from a tale that is riddled with dark corners. While I won’t do it the disservice of commenting on exactly how/if the film commits to the supernatural, there is a wonderful, dark creative spark in its approach that is deeply unsettling and lingers in your brain long after the house lights have gone up.
The film is built on a relatively simple mystery that sees Beth discover a whole new side of her dead husband’s life, but it is executed with fantastic momentum that is driven by its layered storytelling. There are a number of moments when you may think that The Night House has hit upon its “big answers,” but it is impressive how it manages to repeatedly bounce off of those revelations and go deeper into more interesting and complex ideas. At the same time, it drops clues all along the way that hint at what’s to come – and in reflection you can tell those elements are going to make the movie even better on re-watch.
The Night House digs at some deep universal fears and is wonderfully effective.
Of course, story is only half of the equation in the delivery of effective scares, and David Bruckner’s direction and impressive style brilliantly matches the material. There is a persistent chilling atmosphere generated from the work by cinematographer Elisha Christian accentuating the emptiness of Beth’s home, and the editing and sound design also come together in magical and terrifying ways to create some real system shockers. One particular sequence so impressively rattled my nerves that it took me a few minutes to fully recover. It never uses cheap jump scares; its move is to envelope you in a high anxiety state, and then give you a hard push – and it’s an absolute treat if you’re a horror fan.
Rebecca Hall delivers a captivating and complex performance in The Night House.
Stellar as the writing and direction is, Rebecca Hall is ultimately the most exceptional aspect of The Night House, as the story wholly rests on Beth’s shoulders, and the actor carries the emotional weight spectacularly. The character’s frank attitude and contrasting somber loneliness together make a tricky tightrope for Hall to walk, but the star does gymnastics on that line, and is captivating in every moment – be it a startlingly direct conversation with her fellow teachers about her loss, or investigating the decrepit house across the lake and its bizarre backwards construction. It’s a raw performance that makes every part of the film better.
Having premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, The Night House is now getting an unassuming release in late August, but it’s a late summer gem that should absolutely not be overlooked. It’s a dose of psychological terror that is terrific both in vision and execution, featuring an amazing turn from Rebecca Hall, and it’s destined to be recognized as one of 2021’s best horror movies.