While summarizing The Night House before the screening at Sundance, David Bruckner offered up this thought to the audience—what is more frightening: that ghosts actually exist, or that they don’t? And as far as film introductions go, you can’t get more on point than that.
Marrying grief and the horror genre isn’t exactly new territory, but in Bruckner’s The Night House, we see it explored in a much different fashion than before, thanks to an effective and thought-provoking script from writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski. At the center of the film’s story is Beth (Rebecca Hall), whose husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) recently killed himself and she’s left to pick up the pieces of her life without him. As Beth immerses herself in old home movies and wine to try and quell the grief that is consuming her, the widow is left unsettled after a string of strange occurrences, which makes Beth wonder whether or not Owen is trying to reach out to her from the afterlife. And after a series of revelations about the man she was married to surface, Beth does her best to reconcile the fact that her husband had some deep and dark secrets that have put her squarely in harm’s way.
The Night House’s biggest asset is Hall’s performance, which is equal parts gut-wrenching, quietly determined, and at times, bitingly funny, which is no easy feat to achieve. And yet Hall does it effortlessly here as she navigates the choppy waters of grief and survivor’s guilt with the greatest of ease, providing The Night House with an emotional anchor that makes it easy to invest in Beth’s plight and the conflict she’s feeling once she begins to unearth the mysteries that Owen had kept hidden away from her during their time together.
Something else I really appreciated about The Night House was the fact that Beth’s best friend, Claire (played by Sarah Goldberg), is so much more than just a prop or an inactive sounding board for our protagonist, and I applaud everyone involved for making Claire a well-conceived supporting character that doesn’t feel like an afterthought at all (oh, and Goldberg is great as well).
Another huge aspect working in favor of The Night House are the scares that Bruckner masterfully crafts in his latest feature film endeavor. Admittedly, I don’t often find myself left unsettled by horror movies as of late (I’d say the last films to really get under my skin were Sinister, Hereditary, and The Lodge), but there are some truly inspired scares in The Night House that should leave even the most seasoned horror fans rattled. And while Bruckner deserves a great deal of praise for them, his cinematographer Elisha Christian should get some of the accolades as well, as the camerawork in the film really elevates the scares in a way I haven’t experienced in quite some time.
While I absolutely loved The Night House, and found it to be equal parts heartbreaking and genuinely nerve-shredding during certain sequences, I will say that at times, the film really does feel like it’s a bit too busy for its own good, losing focus on the poignant aspects of Beth’s journey here and trading them in to build up a mythology that doesn’t totally come together 100 percent in the end (it comes pretty damn close, though). And while I can’t say too much because it would mean spoilers, The Night House also muddies up the morality of its characters along the way, which might make some viewers wonder just why we should be empathetic with what’s happening to Beth or to those that she cares about.
Those minor quibbles aside, I still found The Night House to be a damn fine exercise in existential terror, with Hall giving such a powerful and career-defining performance here that it’s easy to overlook some of the issues that come up during the film’s final act. Over the years, Bruckner has directed a wide array of genre projects, ranging from The Signal (a personal favorite of mine) to segments in V/H/S, Southbound, and the first season of the Creepshow TV series to The Ritual, but The Night House might just be his greatest cinematic achievement thus far in his career.
Movie Score: 4/5
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