[Editor’s Note: This is a re-post of our review from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The Night House is now in theaters.]
If you’re looking for a good scare, look no further than The Night House. If you’re looking for an opportunity to explore the grieving process through a crafty character study with an exceptional lead performance, it’s got you covered in that department as well.
The Night House stars Rebecca Hall as Beth. Her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) just unexpectedly took his own life and she’s struggling to keep it together and move forward. Making things even more difficult for Beth? She starts having chilling, intense visions in the middle of the night. But, when she wakes up the next morning, there’s no evidence of what she experienced the night before. In an effort to figure out exactly what’s going on and what happened to her husband, Beth starts looking for answers.
There’s a lot to commend in The Night House but we have to begin with Hall’s truly jaw dropping performance. Yes, she scored a Golden Globe nomination for Vicky Christina Barcelona, a SAG nod for being part of the Frost/Nixon cast, and some recognition from the National Board of Review as part of the ensemble in The Town, but it isn’t enough. After the phenomenal Professor Martson & the Wonder Women went largely unnoticed in 2017, it would feel criminal to have Hall’s work in The Night House not get the praise it deserves.
Based on the synopsis, one might expect the role of Beth to be a fairly heavy one and it is, but Hall also infuses the character with a unique sass and determination that makes her a formidable, highly engaging force who’s fascinating to track. There’s one particularly stellar scene at the beginning of the movie that encapsulates it all when Beth, a high school teacher, is approached by a student’s mother about a poor grade. In that moment, and through much of the film, Hall has you hanging on her every word and reaction.
Hall is effortlessly captivating in solo scenes and also boasts loads of chemistry with her co-stars, a vital asset as The Night House hinges on Beth’s relationship with her husband and also her history with her good friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg) and her neighbor Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall). The access to happier times for Owen and Beth is limited, but through Hall’s performance and Jonigkeit’s presence, it’s abundantly clear what was lost and what’s at stake. As for Goldberg and Curtis-Hall, what they bring to the film is a major asset in a number of respects. As concerned skeptics, their involvement winds up heightening the sense of isolation and the terror of what Beth experiences when she’s alone in the house. On top of that, there’s also great value to Beth’s support system in the movie, a system that comes into focus in unexpected and satisfying ways as the story progresses.
After the “Amateur Night” segment in V/H/S, “The Accident” in Southbound and his Netflix feature The Ritual, The Night House marks yet another major step forward for writer-director David Bruckner. There are some clarity issues when it comes to the rules of the world Bruckner establishes and how his ideas coalesce, but that only makes the slightest dent in this clever and fascinating scenario. The Night House also functions as a one-two-punch thanks to the thrill of the mystery unfolding and also how that mystery reflects the grieving process.
And Bruckner ensures you feel every ounce of Beth’s heartbreak, frustration and terror through a number of winning technical achievements, namely the atmosphere and sound design. Bruckner and cinematographer Elisha Christian are masters at establishing an appropriately gloomy feel while crafting some stunning landscape imagery and also highlighting the details of the production design. Editor David Marks’ scare timing couldn’t be better and the same is true of the sound design which will undoubtedly deliver a number of unforgettable jolts throughout the film.
And don’t expect to shake those chills after the movie wraps up. Yes, The Night House does have a clear conclusion but it’s also got themes and ideas that’ll likely get under your skin and stick with you. During his introduction for the movie at its Sundance Film Festival premiere, Bruckner told the crowd that your reaction to the film will probably come down to what you find most frightening, “the idea that ghosts actually exist, or the realization that they don’t.” That statement alone rattled me. Having that thought on my mind while watching his movie downright chilled me to the bone.
KEEP READING: Rebecca Hall and ‘The Night House’ Filmmakers on What’s Scarier: Ghosts Existing or Not