Rebecca Hall + elevated horror, it’s a can’t miss combination! And yet, The Night House, a new film from my fellow Georgia native David Bruckner, struggles to set itself apart from the glut of Babadook copies that have graced/plagued us ever since Jennifer Kent set the horror world on fire a few years ago.
It starts out promising enough: Hall plays Beth, a recently widowed schoolteacher whose husband, Owen (Evan Jonigkeit), takes his own life right outside of their lakefront home late one night. The Night House follows that aftermath and his funeral, with Beth still living in that same home. Suddenly, at night, strange noises occur and Beth begins to hear her husband’s voice calling out to her. She even begins to see things, like the visage of Owen out on the lake. Given the copious evidence that things just ain’t right, and despite the protestations of her best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg), Beth begins to look at Owen’s belongings, including the plans he drew up for their new house and even the pictures on his phone.
And well, she sure doesn’t like what she finds.
Truthfully, The Night House is the tale of two movies. One quite good, one totally misguided. You have what’s happening to Beth at night when no one’s around, and what’s happening during the day when she has to carry on with her normal life or continuing to search for answers. It’s the former that really cooks. It’s no great secret that Hall is one of our tremendously unheralded actresses, consistently producing great work (even when having to read clunker lines like “Kong bows to no one”), and here we get a wonderful showcase of that versatility.
For all intents and purposes, the home alone/night time sequences are basically just Hall in a house by herself, having the wits scared out of her by an increasingly odd confluence of visuals. This is part of the script that is all show and no tell, and it’s an exceedingly gripping atmosphere that oozes creepiness. There’s one particular shot that Bruckner and his team compose that pulls on some of the scariest “that thing that’s totally normal in the day light looks scary as hell at night” feelings that we all have, and it’s kind of jump scare that will really nestle in your brain.
But Bruckner couldn’t leave well enough alone, and when the daylight arrives on this story, all the tells return, which send Beth on an ever draggy, ever complex series of rabbit holes dealing with her husband’s potential infidelity, cult-like rituals, and the possibility that his ghost is all on her head…or is he? (dun-dun-dunnn). The Night House‘s struggle isn’t so much that it tries to answer questions best left uncovered, it’s that they’re deeply unsatisfying, and unravel the moment you think about it with even a moment’s clarity. Even basic character motivations make very little sense, with a number of red herrings scattered about, which do little more than cause consternation for the viewer and further underline the deficiencies of the text.
I was a fan of The Ritual, and there’s no doubt that Bruckner has a great knack for the kind of horror that really gets under your skin. But the need to “say something” has felled many a talented filmmaker and in this case, chalk Bruckner up as another casualty.