Loss hits us all differently and unexpectedly. We can *know* that someone is no longer with us, yet feel them, as though they are lingering in the air. We can *know* that they may not see them again, yet we can revisit them through photos and videos. We can *know* who they are with us, yet we can never know who they were without us. Loss can take what we know and twist it, grind it, gnarl it up, until all that’s left is pain and red pulp. Directed by David Bruckner (The Ritual) and written by Ben Collins (Stephanie) and Luke Piotrowski (Stephanie), The Night House takes the cognitive confusion of loss and grief and gives it a thriller spin, creating a tale that will have you question what it is you see and wondering what you don’t see, even as you recline in a place of comfort.
Soon after the sudden death of her husband, Beth (Rebecca Hall) is trying to make sense of what remains. She struggles to sleep in their bed without him and, when she does sleep, her dreams are labyrinthian nightmares. Stuck in a place of perpetual exhaustion, Beth starts to struggle with what’s real and what’s not as her husband’s secrets slowly come to light. Rather than shirk or hide, Beth decides to face these revelations head-on, unknowingly putting herself on the path to something dark, horrible, and long thought left behind.
If you’re interested in learning about The Night House without spoilers, I recommend checking out EoM contributor Thomas Manning’s spoiler-free theatrical release review. He also took part in a Q&A with lead actor Rebecca Hall wherein she answered some questions about her lead role as the character Beth, her creative influence on the story, and what it’s like to work on smaller productions like The Night House compared to much larger films like Godzilla vs. Kong.
Be advised that the discussion moving forward will include spoilers for those who haven’t seen the film.
Still here? Let’s get into it.
The Night House is a near-seamless combination of three things: Hall’s startling performance, the merging of supernatural with illusion, and a script which can be interpreted straight or not. Keeping in theme with the film itself, let’s examine this in reverse. Despite the marketing telling us that The Night House is a horror film involving a force or spirit, the script can be read in several ways. When we meet Beth, it’s after the death of her husband and we’re shown her drinking quite a bit of liquor and struggling to sleep. She hears a knocking on her door, startling her out of sleep and finds no one at the door. Is it her imagination or something else? That she sees dry-crusted blood on the wood path to the lake behind her home, that doors never seem to stay closed, that she hears the faintest of voices whispering to her can be explained as part of her grief combined with the lack of sleep and the alcohol. We later learn that she’s been treated for depression through her life and suffered a traumatic accident in her youth that resulted in her death for four minutes. These can be taken as red flags and, if my interpretation of the ending is correct, she’s likely going to remain troubled and in need of treatment for some time. Even when the film offers reason, makes the intangible tangible, there’s enough wiggle room for it all to be psychosis and *that* is where the real terror lies. If something can hunt you, it can likely be stopped. But if there’s Nothing (the force given name) hunting you, what do you do? It’s refreshing to have a film use a supernatural premise without concerning itself so much with the lore. It’s there, it’s explored, but it’s less a catalyst for stopping it and more to gain answers. Notice that beyond a physical recreation of a pose, there’s no explanation for the figure Beth finds in Owen’s (Evan Jonigkeit) unfinished second home. Given any kind of pause or thought, there’s just as much left ambiguous that the audience can either accept or reject what’s given to them at face value. It’s far more heart-breaking to think that Owen’s been fighting off Beth’s “demon” for more than 15 years than it is that he’s a serial killer and she’s slowly losing her grip on reality as she learns more about his secret life. Given the choice, which would you rather believe?
Making the supernatural real, though, is a heavy lift. How do you convey a menacing ethereal force when the focus is primarily on Hall? Credit where credit is due, Kathrin Eder’s production design makes the ordinary frightening via optical illusion. In fact, it’s the use of the simple that makes the creep factor within Night House so effective. The house the couple lived(s) in is, itself, a bit of a puzzle, which enables space and location to be a tad distorted for the viewer. That the house also has copious amounts of windows should reduce the terror since we can see the outside from near any shot, except the windows also create the sense of vulnerability as there’s almost nowhere to hide. This isn’t an illusion, but a trick of perception. The illusions come in simple staging and the application of digital effects, such as when Beth notices the strange creation of a person’s profile between the edge of a corner and a support beam like Rubin’s Vase. The difference being that, upon her noticing it, the profile turns toward her. Later, when Beth is dragged through the reverse house, she’s pulled through a hallway that’s shaped like a head facing forward, creating the sensation that she’s about to be swallowed. That she then comes face-to-face with a version of her husband in a space that’s shot to feel confined, it’s almost as though she’s entered the mind of Nothing. These illusions, constructs of staging, blocking, production design, and a bit of CG magic amplify the chills and generate delicious confusion.
When brings us finally to Hall. Though there are several other actors in the film, a great deal of it is just her reacting to, well, nothing. She mentions briefly in the included featurette “What Happens at the Lake House” how terrified she was to do something like this, and you couldn’t tell it from her performance. Granted, I’m a bit biased as a fan of her work, but there’s not a hollow moment in any of her delivery. Of course, once she, as Beth, has her wonderful moment in a surprise teacher-parent conversation, I knew immediately that I would be endeared to this character. (What *did* you want when you walked into the room Hunter’s mom? You clearly felt entitled to something.) That there never appears to be a false note shouldn’t shock, yet the fact that Hall had to balance a shared performance with nothing and do so while conveying strength, grief, elation, terror, or surprise exemplifies what a versatile actor she is. One thing that’s worth commenting on that’s less to do with her as an actor but more as her as the character is the way in which costume designer Samantha Hawkins (The Cat and the Moon) dresses her. This isn’t discussed anywhere, but there’s something about the way in which Beth is dressed which makes Hall seem both smaller, almost thinner, than everyone else, but also lighter, her clothes sometimes entailing aspects that trail as she moves. I interpreted this as communication Beth’s deterioration as well as the way she herself is both of this world and outside of it. There’s so much within Night House regarding duality — life and death, the real world and reflection, substance and illusion — that Hall’s outfits and physical appearance often walked that line as well, feeding into her performance.
Regarding the home release experience, my review copy from SearchLight Pictures is a standard HD digital copy, which I watched via iTunes. I’ve experienced compression issues on streams resulting in artifacting in the blacks with other films, but that either never occurred here or wasn’t noticeable. This is a huge plus as the composition of color is significant to the story, particularly as things progress in the final act. I do wish, though, that Night House would receive a 4K UHD release, as this is the type of film which would only look better with enhanced definition. Additionally, the home release (in the digital and Blu-ray release, at least) does come with the single, 22-minute featurette mentioned above. Through the duration, you’ll hear from both Bruckner and Hall about the making of the movie from how each got involved and their feelings on the film, as well as learn quite a great deal about the process. Only watch this if you’ve seen the film, not because it gives away details (which it does), but because the featurette explains how they pull off some of the impressive and unexpected aspects of the film. I don’t mean how the script places Beth as an active participant versus a reactor to the events around her (which is, itself, awesome), but things like how the ghostly interaction in the final act between Beth and the spirit is realized physically using air hoses. It’s a lo-fi solution to a hi-fi problem.
Coming to The Night House late, I’d heard quite a bit about it, often spoken with praise, and not a single person ruined the experience. That’s a particularly high compliment as, especially in our “always on, gotta be the first to comment” digital lives, secrets are not frequently kept. I can only hope that you experienced The Night House the same way as I, enabling the script to toy with your perception and expectations with delightful glee. Given the heavy subject matter, “glee” may not seem like the most appropriate descriptor, but it’s thanks to Hall’s performance, Bruckner’s direction, Elisha Christian’s (Columbus) cinematography, and the thoughtful script from Collins and Piotrowski that a certain measure of “glee” comes forth from the watching if for no other reason than it’ll make you think twice about the nothing around you.
The Night House Special Features:
- What Happens at the Lake House (22:20)
Available on digital October 5th, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD October 19th, 2021.
For additional information, head to the official The Night House website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.