Horror is all about balance. If the audience is fed too much information it often (removes power) of the moment. If not given enough it may leave them scratching their heads. The best films of the genre nail the balance to nestle deep inside the viewer’s mind, identifying our common fears then turning those against you to provide quick jumps or prolonged haunts. The filmmakers provide the setting and tone and our brains do the heavy lifting, using our own perceptions to essentially scare ourselves. Sometimes you look back and laugh at how foolish it all was. Other times you feel foolish as you find yourself looking back over your shoulder just in case. It was just a movie. Right?
The Night House is finds that balance and the viewers . David Bruckner (The Signal) delivers an intelligent and haunting psychological thriller that uses every aspect of the film’s landscape to deliver prolonged frights. It is a haunted house at its core that goes beyond adding a demon or spirit into the mix of daily life. Instead, Bruckner creatively uses the house itself as a character – an eerily effective one.
The story centers around Beth (Rebecca Hall) who we know little about and we are tasked with putting together the pieces in a nearly dialogue-free opening ten minutes. (If you want to avoid an early spoiler, you can skip to the next paragraph). She is alone in her lakeside home to put together the pieces after the sudden and tragic death of her husband. Mysterious noises and events have her wondering if she is alone after all. All while we question if this is all happening or is Beth breaking down.
Bruckner delivers a disorienting and maddening trip that has you questioning everything while staying grounded in reality enough to feel relatable. Is this home Beth’s husband built for them now turning on her? Is she losing it? Shifting perspectives have us seeing through her eyes as and as an observer adds to the confusion. As she digs in deeper and drinks more brandy we begin questioning her perception completely, especially with David Marks’ crafty editing.
Elisha Christian’s cinematography is used brilliantly. The architecture becomes part of the nightmare and keeps you off balance. He uses the positive and negative space to deliver chilling did-I-just-see-that moments. Was there someone standing in the darkness of the kitchen? Those hair-raising moments that you are too embarrassed to tell anyone about.
Some of the scares resonated because they reminded me of times I stayed awake all night afraid of the person sitting in the middle of my room staring at me. Once, when I was younger, I was too scared to even alert my brother on the top bunk for doing so would seal my fate. Instead I waited, pretending to sleep until the sun peeked through our window to reveal the man in the room was there after all. (His name, Hoover – our vacuum cleaner that my mother had tossed some laundry over.)
If you are unfamiliar with Rebecca Hall of knew her face but not her name, you will remember her after this performance (then watch her incredible, awards-worthy work in 2018’s ‘Christine’). She makes it impossible not to feel for Beth selling the drama and the horror. Her character is well developed, but explored in a way that demands you to be patient and observant. And that patient is rewarding. In the nearly dialogue-free first 10 minutes of the film it is Hall’s nuances that pulled me in. The way she fiddles with a letter, her body language and her sad longing gazes. Her eyes reveal her deep pain. I was not sure what had hurt her at first, but I wanted to reach into the screen and give her a hug. We learn much more about her mindset before the dialogue spells out the details. Then in contrast, the moments we hear her expressing what she is coping with – it is raw, from the soul and give us a glimpse of a woman teetering on the edge of sanity. I loved Hall’s work before and this film only cements her in as one of the best actresses out there today.
Hall’s supporting cast does well, especially Sarah Goldberg (Barry) as Beth’s well-meaning best friend and Vondie Curtis-Hall as her neighbor – who gives off a Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) vibe. Intentional or not it set off my shine and had me ready for anything.
Adding to the endlessly somber and moody film is Ben Lovett’s score which is haunting and keeps you on edge. The visual design of the film also works – it’s not over stylized and heavy handed. Thankfully, we are spared the loads of unnecessary CGI that could render this story toothless. Practical effects had me questioning if my eyes were playing tricks on me. This more subtle approach kept me locked in when other films would have lost me.
It does have its share of jump scares but they seem earned and fitting with the rest of the film. There are also some hair-raising moments that will have you catching your breath. It is blurry at times both in narrative and perspective which may not sit well with some viewers. While the film’s final third is a little less effective as more is revealed, spelling out a little too much of the mystery it still sticks the landing.
The Night House never crosses the line into gratuitous scares, it stays true to the film it sets out to be, avoiding the pitfalls that often sink others in the genre. Bruckner takes full advantage of those irrational fears we all have but also nails the balance between horror and drama. That is due in a large part to the commanding performance Hall delivers throughout – her journey, the mystery that unfolds, the chilling elements, her mental state. As we delve into Beth’s grief, doubts and sanity Hall makes sure you are absorbed right to the final shot that sent chills down my spine.
The Night House is in theaters now.
“The Night House” is a haunted house horror film that takes advantage of your senses to deliver scares and drama – anchored by an incredible performance by Rebecca Hall.