After taking in the trailers for the psychological horror film “The Night House” I was left with some rather obvious expectations: a haunted house story, a malevolent apparition, some spooky atmosphere, and (if we’re lucky) some genuine chills. What I didn’t expect to find was a meaningful character study nestled snugly within an entertaining genre film and anchored by one of my favorite performances of the year from Rebecca Hall.
Hall plays Beth, a school teacher in upstate New York who we first meet only days after her husband Owen inexplicably took his own life. The couple had been happily married for 14 years, but now Beth finds herself abandoned, haunted by a houseful of memories and a cryptic suicide note that leaves her with more questions than answers.
Beth’s well-meaning friends try to take her mind of things, but she mostly keeps to herself, alone with her grief, anger and perplexity, inside of the large double-decker lake house Owen built for her. But eerie disturbances in the night make Beth (and us) question whether she’s really alone. Maybe it’s just too much wine. Is it her frayed psyche playing tricks on her? Or has Owen returned from the grave?
“The Night House” is directed by David Bruckner who has shown himself to be a smart and savvy genre filmmaker. Here he takes some familiar tricks and uses them to great effect – a stereo suddenly blasting on its own, loud knocks on the door in the middle of the night, creepy silhouettes vanishing into the shadows. With the help of DP Elisha Christian’s crafty camerawork and Ben Lovett’s uneasy score, Bruckner amps up the dread each evening when Beth falls asleep.
While Bruckner and company clearly have a good time making us squirm, the movie works well because it never strays from its chief focus – Beth’s state of mind. The script (co-written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski) fills us in on a her past struggles with depression and “dark thoughts” and how it was Owen “who kept them at bay.”
Collins and Piotrowski do a good job keeping things under wraps while leaving a clue-filled trail of breadcrumbs (along with a few diversions) for our minds to follow. At the same time, Bruckner makes superb use of his location to feed our apprehension. The opening shots tease something idyllic, but any notion of tranquility quickly evaporates, overtaken by feelings of isolation and despair which Bruckner squeezes out of his picturesque setting.
“The Night House” is an immensely satisfying horror thriller that fully embraces its genre elements while also shrewdly dealing with some heavy topics such as mortality, depression, grief, and suicide. A few of the story’s details can get a little muddy in the final act and the ending may be a little too tidy. But the deeper the filmmakers go into the main character’s crumbling psychology the more I appreciated what they were going for. And any opportunity to see Rebecca Hall take on a meaty role like this is a treat in and of itself.