The Night House, 2020.
Directed by David Bruckner.
Starring Rebecca Hall, Stacy Martin, Sarah Goldberg, Vondie Curtis-Hall and Evan Jonigkeit.
A woman grieving after her husband’s suicide begins to suspect that he might have been having an affair. And he’s probably haunting their house too.
It takes a special performance to anchor a film like The Night House. For much of its running time, it’s a one-hander in which the protagonist is shut inside a cavernous lakeside home, left deafeningly empty by the loss of her husband. In order for the movie to work it all, that protagonist needs to carry almost every scene on her own. It’s fortunate then that The Night House boasts a leading lady with the sheer force of Rebecca Hall, who turns The Ritual director David Bruckner’s stripped-down spook story into an intriguing and compelling mystery.
The triumph of Hall’s performance as grieving teacher Beth is in her ability to shift the tone of a scene with a single line reading or change of facial expression. Returning to work soon after her bereavement, she silences a picky, irritating parent with a deadpan declaration that “my husband shot himself in the head last Thursday”. It’s one of many moments of inky-black gallows humour that Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski’s script injects amid the suspense and jump scares of the premise, not so much relieving that tension as introducing a different kind of intensity.
Much of the central action orbits around the aforementioned real estate beauty spot, with Hall’s Beth struggling with a newfound spate of somnambulism and a picture of a mysterious woman on her late husband Owen’s (Evan Jonigkeit) phone. At first, she thinks it might just be a strangely-angled photo of her, but she’s eventually able to track the mysterious snap to occult bookshop employee Madelyne (Stacy Martin). As things continue to go bump in the night, she’s forced to confront the fact she might not have known her husband as well as she thought.
Bruckner’s previous work has shown he has a talent for building an atmosphere of suspenseful mystery, and certainly The Night House is at its strongest when its central story is unfurling gradually. Each new revelation and glimpse of terrifying truth is elegantly executed – most notably in an utterly chilling five minutes of ghost train chaos triggered by a suddenly diegetic blast of Ben Lovett’s unconventional score, which delivers a very rude awakening both for Beth and any less engaged audience members. Anybody who says jump scares can never be truly effective should have a word with Bruckner.
But with that said, The Night House is afflicted by many of the same issues that left Bruckner’s previous outing, The Ritual, feeling a little disappointed. When the dominoes start to tumble and the film’s secrets are unveiled, the movie unspools and loses its tightly controlled tension. The film deserves credit for its invention and boldness, as well as the continued strength of Hall’s work, but much of the story’s intrigue vanishes amid the supernatural light show.
This is Hall’s show and her performance is as masterful as you’d expect from her. The Night House asks her to do many things that’d cause a lesser actor to stumble or lean into histrionics and caricature but, in her assured hands, the movie’s first half is a darkly comic and intensely fascinating journey into the mind of a character trying to remain afloat even as the ground shifts beneath her.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.