The Night House, directed by David Bruckner, with a script from Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, originally had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020. Now we find ourselves in August 2021, after a wild 18 months across a world which has been overrun by a pandemic, with Bruckner’s film getting a theatrical release. And, by sheer coincidence, The Night House is a story that deals with the all too familiar and relevant themes of loneliness, isolation, and despair. For that reason, mileage may vary on individual audience reactions to this film. It is certainly not escapist entertainment, and it may even hit a little too close to home for those who have had an especially difficult time with the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the world. With that said, I cannot deny that Bruckner has made one hell of a horror drama, anchored by a haunting lead performance from Rebecca Hall.
Hall acts in the role of Beth, a grieving widow whose husband has tragically, suddenly died of suicide. She is a high school teacher as well, which is quite a burdened profession in itself. Many people have a severe lack of empathy for the lives of educators, a notion that is briefly touched upon in a particularly uncomfortable, yet honest, scene early in the film. While The Night House as a whole is not a commentary on the struggles of teachers in America, I did appreciate the depiction of this small sequence in the film, especially watching this as someone with multiple educators in my family. Even Beth’s co-workers do not understand how to react to her situation with sensitivity and grace. They say all the wrong things and ask all the wrong questions. Rather than just “being there” for her, their presence is more of a hindrance than anything else. Indeed, there is still a negative stigma surrounding mental illness and its effects. There is a lot of ignorance among the general population, but misconceptions can be cleared up with genuine discussions and open minds. Perhaps even this film can act as a conversation starter. The fact that I have gotten this far without even mentioning the elements of The Night House that make it a horror genre piece is a testament to the depth and quality of this film. There is plenty of value to be found in the motifs of the story and circumstances, even outside of the chilling mystery at the center of the film.
With a title like The Night House, you will not be surprised to learn that the setting is a critical component to the development of the narrative. After her husband’s death, Beth is now entirely alone in this beautiful lakeside home, deeply hurt by the emptiness in her life, externally and internally. However, it is only a matter of time before she senses an eerie presence in her midst. She hears echoes of a man’s voice. Her radio suddenly begins to play the Richard Thompson song “The Calvary Cross” at various points throughout the day and night. She sees footprints on the property. There are tricks of light with the geometry of the house’s architecture that periodically create the form of a shadowy figure. She drifts into terrifying nightmares with visions of the ghostly specter of her late husband. The line between reality and imagination in Beth’s life is blurring. The tension and atmospheric dread are ramped up with the taut direction from David Bruckner and a talented crew behind the scenes. The cinematography from DP Elisa Christian makes excellent use of negative space on screen to lend to the feeling that something is there in the room with Beth — perhaps over in that empty corner, or behind that piece of furniture. The sound design team also does brilliant work, playing on the hollowness of the house. Even the smallest of sounds becomes that much more apprehension-inducing in the context of Beth’s predicament.
The technical filmmaking mastery at hand in The Night House is easy to appreciate, but the lead performance from Rebecca Hall is the true selling point. She is acting alone for the majority of the runtime, expressing tremendous emotion and reactions to things that are not even visible on screen. Her character is put through the wringer mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and, in turn, physically. Yet, she maintains such a strong resolve and independence about her. Darkness within her and in the world around her threatens to take over her life, but she refuses to go quietly. Hall embodies this role with unmistakable confidence. In the few scenes that are shared with the supporting cast members, she adjusts to the demands of the moment and her performance with ease. A couple of the most moving character moments in the film feature Hall sharing the screen with Sarah Goldberg (who portrays Beth’s sister, Claire) and Vondie Curtis-Hall (Beth’s neighbor, Mel). These two characters are used sparingly, but to great effect, as the arc of Beth’s character is fully realized. I mentioned that one of the forefront themes of the film is the concept of loneliness, but the characters of Claire and Mel represent something beyond that sorrow — hope and solace. Even in our bleakest times of misery and anguish, there are always compassionate, empathetic souls somewhere in our lives who have love for us. This is a universal message that is always worth bearing in mind, and its timeliness is markedly stirring.
The horror genre’s thematic versatility ranges far and wide. What we have with The Night House is a study on depression and mourning that retains a heart of sincerity and, perhaps, a peace to be found in the storm. This film does not live and die by its jump scares (although there are a few that still get my heartrate up just thinking about them). It is the human soul that makes The Night House a meaningful and substantial film.
In select theaters August 13th, 2021.
For more information, head to Searchlight Pictures’s official The Night House website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.