Film Review – The Night House
The Night House
The Night House (2021) is your classic haunted house flick. It’s the kind of story where a seemingly normal looking home start exhibiting spooky occurrences. We get the usual creaky floorboards, doors that open and close on their own, appliances that magically turn on and off at any given moment – they’re all lifted directly out of the “Haunted House Handbook.” Although there are number of good scares and a compelling character study at its center, the film leaves us with a disaffected feeling. I didn’t come out of it with a chill down my spine but more of a numbness.
That isn’t to say there isn’t a lot of good stuff going on here. The biggest highlight is Rebecca Hall, who gives a strong, committed performance as our lead character, Beth. At the time we meet her, Beth is going through a personal struggle. She just lost her husband, Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) and the tragedy has affected her deeply. Beth loses interest in her work as a schoolteacher and spends much of her time laying on her couch, drinking, and watching old home movies. Everything around Beth reminds her of Owen – even their lakeside house was built by him as a gift for her.
At first, we gather that this is an exploration of Beth’s depression, and Hall plays her as such. She inhabits the role with sadness, loneliness, and confusion. Hall is effective in portraying Beth’s inner turmoil – from the way she looks at the empty side of the bed to how she interacts with other people. When her friend and fellow teacher Claire (Sarah Goldberg) takes Beth out to a bar to help ease her mind, watch how Hall plays the scene. A lesser actor would have the character get sloppy drunk. Thankfully, Hall delivers a more nuanced performance, letting Beth articulate her anger, frustration, and guilt. She subverts our expectations with her finely tuned acting.
The direction (David Bruckner), cinematography (Elisha Christian) and editing (David Marks) add some hard-hitting suspense and horror, especially early on. Although many of the jump scares are familiar, they are executed with enough creativity to keep us off balance. One recurring bit is a radio turning on and off. The way it repeats helps build to a nice payoff later down the road. The use of footprints has been done a thousand times, but Bruckner and his team structure it with a nice twist. Normally, a jump scare would last for only a quick flash and then be forgotten about. Here, there is one right smack dab in the middle of the runtime that is intentionally stretched out. It’s not so much a “jump scare” as opposed to a “jump sequence,” where the sound effects bellow out for a surprisingly long period of time.
The evil that descends upon Beth’s home, combined with her depression over her husband’s death, opens a door for exploring whether what we see is really happening or a figment of Beth’s mental state. Both Claire and Beth’s neighbor Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) express concern over Beth being by herself. Sadly, the writing (Ben Collins, Luke Piotrowski) does not delve into this deeply enough. The second half devolves into a mystery, where Beth follows a string of clues regarding Owen and the house itself. This is where things starts to slip, complete with horror movie cliches as Beth becomes a self-appointed sleuth. She starts finding random objects that she apparently never noticed before – even a book that contains strange drawings and writings she doesn’t recognize. How many horror movies feature this exact same kind of book?
The third act will either make or break a viewer. This is where the story goes into full on dreamscape mode as Beth confronts the ghouls in her home and within herself. Some may see the fantastical elements and be won over. I wasn’t as convinced. The more surreal things got, the less interested I became. Beth’s character study takes a backseat as she fights to survive. Questions are answered but the result feels clunky and incomplete. “The Ghost Story” is one of the hardest acts to accomplish in the horror genre. Why? Because the rules are so flimsy that it is very easy for a movie to fly off the tracks. Characters lose the ability to affect what happens around them and are subject to whatever weird hallucinations come their way. Instead of controlling their destiny, they become a bystander to it.
My feelings toward The Night House sit right down the middle. One part of me enjoyed Rebecca Hall’s performance and how her character dealt with pain and grief. The other side was less enthralled with how things shifted toward the antics of the final third and how the ending abruptly stopped mid-sentence. Sometimes a person will watch a movie, acknowledge the good things about it, and then forget about it almost as soon as the credits roll. This is one of those instances for me. Perhaps time and another viewing will swing me one way or the other. Maybe not.