The Night House (2020)

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Directed by David Bruckner

Of all the things people are scared of, death must be towards the top. It’s the great unknown – maybe there’s an afterlife, but what if it’s just the end? This question has never been far from Beth’s (Hall) thoughts since she died for four minutes after an accident. Years later, for reasons unknown, her husband Owen (Jonigkeit) takes his rowboat into the middle of the lake, points his pistol at his head then shoots himself – leaving only a cryptic note behind. We join her afterwards as she struggles with his metaphorical, and possibly literal, ghost – trying to make some sense of her loss. Not easy with the record player in their house turning itself on every night, her starting sleep walking (which she’s never done), dark silhouettes showing up around her home plus Owen having left books of mazes and plans for a second house that mirrors their own. Then there are his many photos of women that look a bit like her. All that’s certain is her husband had secrets.

This likely sounds intriguing – and for two-thirds of the film, it sure as heck is. Some viewers may find the pacing of The Night House a slog, though it didn’t bother me. Assuming something special was coming up, I revelled in the slow but steady dropping of clues and building of suspense. Bruckner has an established record with horror, and there are points where the storytelling seems masterful. When Beth looks out across the lake at night and sees lights flicker on at the other side or finds a book of mazes, it was dead exciting. The whole concept of a flipped house and all these mysterious women – I saw so many possibilities. Cloning? A parallel universe, maybe? Sadly, the payoff is a lot more pedestrian and is a real let down.

Granted, many great horror films fall apart in the last third, but here it’s particularly frustrating since the movie is ostensibly a mystery. You overlook the lack of thrills because you trust that there’s a solid reveal that’ll make it all the more satisfying. What few horror scenes we get are relatively well done – including a decent jump scare – but more effective is the underlying feeling that something’s happening on the periphery. But in trying to explain it and wrap everything up with a two-sentence solution, The Night House goes into goofy territory. We’re not talking ‘it’s all a dream’ – rather it’s something really convoluted. Its underdeveloped lore eventually even borders on unintentionally funny. Lots of parts don’t quite make sense either – the photos don’t fit in nicely, and motivations begin to fall apart a little. What’s similarly disappointing is it fails to explore Beth’s response to finding out what her husband had been up to – something that ought to make things way more emotionally complex. Lots of cinematic foreplay, but falling short of a memorable climax.

Still, though the plot doesn’t hang together for me, the thematic resolution is more satisfying. Like a lot of supernatural horrors, The Night House grounds itself in something genuine: grief, guilt and the worry that there’s nothing on the other side of this mortal coil. I wasn’t sold on some plot devices to integrate these with the action, but they are blended well with the character journey. Rebecca Hall handles the material brilliantly, with both a vulnerability and a blunt, sometimes bullish, attitude to others. She’s impressed me in the past, and this is a good vehicle for her: a showcase of what she can do. We know from early on she’s had issues with depressive thoughts in the past – something her husband had been better able to ward off. And while a focus on mood disorders sometimes leads to one-note performances, she fully inhabits her character. These complicated emotions call for a nuanced performance – making this film a commendable showcase of what she can do.

The Night House is also successful on a technical level. The house may seem too modern for a haunted house narrative, which makes sense since Owen built it himself. But Bruckner knows how to make the most of it – the big windows leave Beth exposed, the dark forest can hide all manner of threats, and the frequently glimpsed lake reminds us death is never far. In some ways, the metaphysical aspects are the movie’s weakest. Still, as per The Ritual, they allow for the director to do ambitious things. There is some cool iconography and a handful of visually arresting set-pieces which make me think Bruckner’s definitely got an excellent film in him, even if he’s yet to make it. In that respect, The Night House’s qualities make me mourn what it could have been.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Night House is at the cinema now.

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About david.s.smith 451 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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