Our instincts and familiarity with the horror genre tell us David Bruckner’s “The Night House” should play out just like any other of its kind—a typical shocker that’s a carbon copy of, say, “The Amityville Horror” or “What Lies Beneath.” On the surface, it’s another of those horror movies in which a demonic or otherworldly presence terrorizes an attractive heroine as she roams around—lonely and frightened—in her large, multi-windowed house with no one else in the immediate vicinity, making her helpless and vulnerable.
Review: The Night House
By Matthew Huntley
September 13, 2021
However, “The Night House” proves, once again, why one should never judge a movie based on its superficial qualities or one’s preconceived notions. Bruckner, together with original screenplay writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, and star Rebecca Hall, confidently reveal more interesting and complicated layers as the yarn of this unexpectedly complicated story slowly unravels. It becomes an increasingly involving psychological drama, one with enough thought and substance behind it that veritably prevents viewers from being able to dismiss it as merely shallow or gimmicky. Yes, the film employs some of the standard horror genre devices, but eventually these become secondary to an otherwise engaging drama with deeper themes of love, guilt, shame, forgiveness, and the difficulty of letting go.
Hall plays Beth, a mostly passive high school teacher who, when we first meet her, is arriving home from her husband Owen’s (Evan Jonigkeit) funeral. Naturally, Owen’s death has left Beth feeling sad, angry, cynical, and confused. Why did Owen decide to take their boat out onto the lake in front of their house and shoot himself in the mouth (as Beth crassly reenacts at one point)? Beth is perplexed, and she doesn’t want sympathy from her best friend, Claire (Sarah Goldberg), or her kind, concerned neighbor, Mel (Vondie Curtis Hall). Instead, she wants answers, but until she finds them, she takes refuge in alcohol and replaying home movies of her and Owen’s shortened life together.
As early as the next morning, the strange phenomena we come to expect from a movie with this type of setup start to take shape. You know the drill: doors open and/or lock for no apparent reason; the gate leading down to the boat dock suddenly becomes unlatched and incessantly makes a creepy creaking sound; there are muddy footprints on the dock stairs; and Beth starts receiving eerie texts from…you guessed it: Owen.
Part of Beth thinks she may be losing it, but even if she is, she decides to do some digging into her husband’s past to shed some light on his potential motivations for committing suicide. For starters, she finds rough sketches and amateur blueprints for another lake house, which is made all the odder because the house is just like theirs, only reversed. What’s more is Beth discovers pictures of women on Owen’s phone who look almost exactly like her but are clearly not. One of these women, Madelyne (Stacy Martin), Beth finds working at a bookstore nearly 200 miles away, where Owen purchased books about the occult. And while walking around the lake, Beth indeed finds a house Owen started building but never finished. Inside is a ghastly wooden statue depicting a kneeling figure with several sharp spikes piercing its body.
Who was this man Beth thought she knew? Was Owen planning to leave? Was he having an affair? Perhaps he was attempting to conjure evil spirits, or maybe torture Beth in some way. In the home movies Beth watches, Owen appears relatively normal, but one of the strongest points the film makes and constantly returns to is that how someone appears on the outside often has no bearing on how he or she feels on the inside.
This is a reality Beth certainly knows a lot about. She admits she’s long suffered from depression and her dark, internal thoughts were exacerbated when, she was young, she was in a car accident that rendered her legally dead for four minutes. When she finally came to, she realized death was “nothing,” and this realization and the overall experience left her feeling empty and hopeless. Owen didn’t share Beth’s perspective, and their opposing views about the afterlife may have triggered Owen to resent his wife in some way. As a result, perhaps he thought it was his mission to prove her wrong, even if that involved hurting other women, summoning evil spirits, or terrorizing his wife after his own death, all of which the story suggests were possible.
I’m purposely being vague about what transpires in “The Night House” and the ambiguous answers it provides to the many questions it proposes. Discovering and analyzing the supposed “truth” about the characters and what happens to them is what makes the movie so engaging and, on a more visceral level, fun, exciting, and spooky.
Production values-wise, the low-key lighting, brooding atmosphere, and loud crescendos on the soundtrack get and hold our attention, but it’s the film’s pursuit to speak honestly about the human condition, our vulnerabilities and insecurities, and our inherent yearning to always find out more about those we love, that make “The Night House” resonate in ways we don’t expect. As storytellers, Bruckner, Collins, and Piotrowski deserve credit for coating the narrative with genuine thought and sensitivity, while Hall merits praise for manifesting Beth’s conflicting emotions so earnestly and effectively, reminding us of her range and nuance as an actress.
If you’re going into “The Night House” wanting shocks and scares, you’ll get them, but fortunately the filmmakers want you to get more. They challenge us with the film’s mysteries and the complex motivations of the characters, encouraging us to question what we would do in their situations, right down to how we should convey our beliefs and values, especially to friends and family, and how we don’t often think about the rippling effects of what we communicate. As a psychological horror thriller and drama, “The Night House” works on many levels. It’s one that doesn’t just want us to jump; it also wants us to think and discuss.