David Bruckner, continues his horror sensibilities after the mixed 2017 horror film The Ritual, directed this psychological horror melodrama, starring Rebecca Hall as a depressed school teacher who suffers from recent grief due to the tragic suicide from her late husband as well as trying to get through her own mental health that involves hallucinations, sleepwalking, and unlocking a mystery to his secret past.
Premiering at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, The Night House finally gets a theatrical release this late summer by Searchlight Pictures and shot on location in Syracuse, New York. Taking a page or two from Robert Altman’s Images, as well as other cerebral supernatural horror films that also deal with loss and tragedy–most notably Nicholas Roeg’s horror masterpiece Don’t Look Now, Olivier Assayas Personal Shopper, as well as Peter Medak’s horror classic Changeling that all take place in isolated houses in rural areas. The horror saga follows Beth (Halll), an unstable school teacher who finds herself submerged in apparitions, delusions, and self-discovery of the mystery of why her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) who is seen through flashbacks and vivid dreams that Beth endures while staying at her lake home that Owen help design himself.
In the course of the narrative, Beth receives a series of disturbing text messages from Owen and phone calls in her home one eerie night; the ghastly voice suggests that Owen is still alive only to wake up to reveal it’s just a nightmare that will soon allow Beth to embark on a journey that leads to deception in their marriage after she finds an unusual photo on his cell phone of a woman that looks her from a profile shot. This leads Beth to drinking alone and going through more of Owen’s things where she finds a sketchbook of really strange drawings and a mirror sketch of her home. Beth also continues to see intense visions of Owen and can feel his presence in the spacious lake house. She even has a vision where she has dreams of her doppelganger as her dream reality feels reversed
Distressed and mourning, Beth turns to her best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg) who reassures her that Owen was deeply in with n love her, and the whole picture mystery is innocuous considering the picture wasn’t lurid or pornographic. However, situations get more bizarre after Beth goes for a walk in the trails across the lake only to discover a secret that is very similar to her own that Owen was building in private. Beth ends up finding disturbing occult figurines and other artifacts in the house. She turns to her neighbor Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) who confesses to her that Owen brought a woman to that house. Mel advises Beth to improve her mental health and try not to focus on the tragedy by being around friends and family, but this deepens Beth’s journey in finding out who Owen really is. The truth of his suicide becomes a focal point that leads to Beth’s own pasts trauma’s and internal turmoil that could be interlocked with Owen and her own psyche, soul, and perhaps own spirituality. The minding-bending and semi-terrifying third act that feels like a delirious fever dream impresses on a visual level that involves a red Moon that bathes the screen with Dario Argento reds. In fact, Bruckner probably could have gone even further with the macabre and it would have been even more chilling.
The real highlight of the film here is Rebecca Hall, her performance here is pulled off with so much anxiety and raw emotion where you feel her affliction and pain in the most harrowing ways. Hall delivers a perfect mix of angst and vulnerabilities to the character where you feel her grief and pain in every moment of the film. Bruckner’s direction here is also very skillful. Combined with rich aesthetics, impressive cinematography by Elisha Christian, rich décor, and adept cutting that bring some ominous scares that did jump out at me in effective ways. Prepare for the scene after she goes out drinking with some friends is the most unnerving scare I have experienced in the theater since David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE and Mulholland Drive. Bruckner also uses mirrors as a motif in very efficient ways as a reflection of Beth’s inner torment and fractured psyche that leads to her asking some existential questions. Such eerie scenes at times also come in monologues where she recalls a tragedy where she almost died as a teenager in a terrible automobile accident in which she died for a few minutes. Beth states that her quick death was just “nothingness”.
While drowning in some plot holes in which the film loses some of the atmospheric and dreary momentum that was build up in such a brooding way in the first two acts of the film, the script is smart in many layers, but it does raise a lot of questions of how Beth was so aloof to Owen building a house for so long. Some use of small flashbacks feel inert and don’t measure up to the rest of the film. The final sequence is well shot and aesthetically pleasing, but isn’t quite as ominous as it could have been. Without revealing too many spoilers, Bruckner had so much to work with in making the hairs stand up but it feels tamed and compromised. But despite these quibbles, The Night House is certainly worth watching as it works well as a horror film, a mystery, and even a character study thanks to Hall’s impressive acting.
In addition, with Halloween season approaching with Candyman now playing, with a new Halloween on the horizon, this film should appease horror and thriller fans who are looking for something deeply haunting that is also very compelling. The Night House is a gripping and elegiac work, a grief-stricken character study that also just happens to be an ode to loss. This is all pulled off mainly to Hall’s extensive performance and Bruckner’s direction that makes the material feel both personal and sympathetic.