THE NIGHT HOUSE
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Sarah Goldberg, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Evan Jonigkeit, Stacy Martin, David Abeles, Christina Jackson, Patrick Klein
Director: David Bruckner
Running Time: 107 mins
The haunted house/supernatural sub-genre often turns on grief, transforming and externalising its varied, contradictory effects into literal and literally terrifying manifestations of psychological ruptures or breaks from objective reality. A fine example is David Bruckner's deeply unsettling supernatural horror film, The Night House. Filled with all the expected - and some unexpected - jolts, shocks, and scares typically associated with the haunted house/supernatural sub-genre, The Night House benefits from Bruckner's finely calibrated direction, some moody cinematography, and Rebecca Hall's utterly committed central performance as a school-teacher profoundly mourning the seemingly inexplicable, unimaginable loss of her architect husband to suicide. Left alone in a huge empty house overlooking a lake, Hall's character, Beth, spends the days after her husband Owen's (Evan Jonigkeit) suicide moving through her grief while numbing herself through copious amounts of alcohol, over-sleeping, and aimlessly wandering in a daze around the house that her late husband built for her. Not even her best friend Claire's (Sarah Goldberg) concerns over Beth's emotional and psychological health can spur Beth on towards beginning the difficult process of healing over the devastating loss of her husband. At night, the house seems to come alive with vivid, discomforting manifestations of her unresolved grief - the stereo turns on by itself, playing what I assume is their favourite song, knocks and bumps on doors and windows awaken Beth at odd hours, and disturbing images and sounds of another, almost identical house on the other side of the lake begin to infiltrate her dreams, leaving her increasingly distraught and disturbed.
With her every day and night reality seemingly slipping into a waking nightmare, Beth turns metaphysical detective, hoping to find the reason behind Owen's suicide, in the belongings left behind at their home. Beth's curiosity turns into obsession when she discovers a photo of another woman who resembles Beth on Owen's phone. It’s clear that he most definitely had a type. Owen's notebooks reveal not just the floor plans for their lake house, but another, mirror or reverse house, occult scribblings, and ominous warnings about containing a malevolent supernatural presence. It's almost enough to drive Beth, a woman who defines herself by her beliefs in scientific rationality, material reality, and a non-belief in the supernatural, into the equivalent of a psychological breakdown. As the clues pile up, both subtracting and adding to the mystery of Owen's death, Beth is forced to confront harsh, unimagineable truths about her late husband. There's a creeping sense of disorientation, dislocation, and ultimately terror in Beth's discoveries about Owen. She didn't really know the man she loved for more than a decade. It's a shock in and of itself, the central realisation that love and the trust that comes with love doesn't necessarily confer knowledge of the other person in a relationship. Of course, The Night House doesn't linger too long on Owen's potentially damning secrets, not when the film repeatedly wishes to scare the viewer into quivering submission. The well crafted sound effects certainly help in that respect, as does the muted colour scheme meant to evoke Beth's fragile mental state, and Bruckner's unobtrusive, efficient direction that puts story and character first and visual stunts or gimmickry second.
Minus a rushed third act where the revelations about Owen and the mirror house spill out a fast and semi-confusing furious pace, leaving more questions than answers in its wake, The Night House hinges almost completely on Hall's central performance. Always a committed performer regardless of the underlying material, Hall gives her all as Beth, giving voice and expression to Beth's journey through a macabre grief process. Hall isn't afraid to play Beth as a partially unsympathetic character, letting Beth's obsessions colour and dictate her often volatile mood. It’s easily one of the best, most memorable performances of Hall's under-sung career.