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The Night House

The Night House comes to us from director David Bruckner, alongside screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski. All three of whom have steadily built up a collection of low-budget horror bona fides deep within the indie horror underground. But of course the big name here is Executive Producer Rebecca Hall, who was apparently in the market for a horror movie vehicle.

Yeah, I’m on board for this.

Our premise begins with Owen (Evan Jonigkeit), an architect who personally designed and built a lake house for himself and his wife (Beth, played by Hall). They’d been happily married for just short of 15 years when Owen suddenly shoots himself in the head, leaving behind a disturbingly cryptic note.

We open just after the funeral, while Beth is still firmly in the “anger” stage of grief. She gets drunk, she trashes stuff, she lashes out at anyone who shows concern, and so on. Then she gets all sorts of weird dreams, wakes up in strange places, hears stuff while she’s alone in the middle of the night, sees bizarre visions, finds a bunch of odd stuff in her late husband’s belongings, and so on.

It’s hard to sufficiently explain the premise, as so much is tied up in spoilers and clues. Also, the film is a straightforward “haunted house” ghost story, so the premise doesn’t exactly need much elaboration beyond that. Still, there’s a lot to like here.

Yes, the film is regrettably heavy with jump scares, but it’s nonetheless a fine example of how jump scares can be done right. To start with, the filmmakers were shrewd enough to front-load the jump scares, the better to keep us on our toes through the rest of the film. All while the film is indulging in atmospheric horror and suspense, the audience is constantly waiting on tenterhooks for the next jump scare. Quite clever.

For another thing, so many of the jump scares are natural extensions of the atmosphere. Either that or they’re (seemingly) mundane surprises that startle our protagonist in her distracted state of mind. I’m still not a fan of the aggressive musical sting that comes with every jump scare, but I can honestly say there isn’t a cheap or underhanded one in the whole flick.

More notably, the filmmakers make liberal and effective use of a multi-layered sculpture kind of effect. It’s not an easy thing to describe, but in practice, it’s hard to tell if a shadowy figure is really a malicious spirit or a collection of random objects viewed from a certain perspective. It’s surprisingly chilling and dazzlingly creative.

Visually and metaphorically, the film is heavily preoccupied with the concepts of emptiness and nothingness. It’s especially prominent in the film’s ruminations about death, daring to ask whether any kind of afterlife would really be preferable to simply fading away and ceasing to exist. The whole concept of “nothing” is unimaginable on this scale, as the human mind is literally incapable of conceiving what its own non-existence would look and feel like.

“Nothing” is at once such a simple and basic concept, yet it’s something grand and terrible and unknowable in the existential scheme of things. It’s a terrible and fascinating paradox, and kudos to the filmmakers for exploring that in such a heartfelt, captivating, visually dynamic way.

That said, Rebecca Hall deserves most of the credit for selling the film’s statements on death, grief, and loss. She turns in a powerhouse performance, delivering a woman who would literally turn the world upside down in her pathological need for closure. Beth doesn’t care if her clues and inquiries all lead to a dead end, and she doesn’t even care if others get hurt along the way (though that’s never Plan A). Perhaps most importantly, Beth will keep going even if it means discovering something about her husband she may regret finding out. That’s huge because — without getting into spoilers — Beth knows from personal experience and at great cost that anything learned can never be un-learned.

Though Hall is indisputably the star, she’s aided by a small yet mighty supporting cast. Sarah Goldberg appears as Claire, a coworker and close friend to Beth. (They’re both high school teachers, by the way.) Moreover, Claire is a happily married mother, so she’s able to provide Beth with the support and normalcy that Beth so badly needs. Most especially, Claire serves as a helpful reminder for Beth and everyone else that Beth is in a bad place, what she’s going through isn’t normal, and everyone might do well to respect her space and her healing process. I suppose Claire is the comic relief in the strict technical sense, but she fills that role with a soft touch. Exactly what the film needed, and Goldberg plays it with elegant sympathy.

We’ve also got Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall), a neighbor living near the lake house. Again, he’s a support character who takes it on himself to look after Claire and encourage her to go easy on herself. The difference is that Mel is an older man who previously lost his wife, so he’s coming at this from the perspective from someone who’s already been through what Beth is going through now. (But without the paranormal freakiness, one assumes.) Moreover, because Mel is such a good friend and neighbor, there’s a distinct possibility that he might’ve known more and seen more than he’s letting on.

It bears mentioning that Beth and Owen themselves have secrets they’ve kept from everyone else. I’m quite sure that of everyone in the cast, Claire is the only one who’s 100 percent trustworthy. Which is another reason why she’s so valuable, come to think of it.

Speaking of which, there’s Stacy Martin’s character. I don’t think there’s a single damned thing I can say about this character without spoiling something, so let’s just say that Martin holds the screen admirably well against Hall and leave it at that.

The Night House does a fine job of working within its limits. At just under two hours long, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome. While the plot is more or less a standard ghost story with tried-and-true themes of death and grief, there are just enough bells and whistles here to make this a genuinely scary yet heartfelt good time. It certainly helps that while the cast is highly limited, Rebecca Hall is acting her ass off and every last supporting actor around her is impeccable.

This is definitely one to check out.

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