Is Rebecca Hall about to become our new favourite scream queen? With The Night House, the acclaimed dramatic actress enters the same pantheon as Elisabeth Moss, Toni Collette and Lupita Nyong’o, delivering the kind of performance that will have genre enthusiasts buzzing for the rest of the year.
It doesn’t hurt that the latest film from David Bruckner (The Ritual and the forthcoming Hulu remake of Hellraiser) has a masterful handle on the material. Working with writing pair Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (Super Dark Times), The Night House is an original IP about Beth (Hall), a recently widowed woman who discovers that her dead husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit, X-Men: Days of Future Past) was keeping more than a few secrets from her.
The logline is deceptively simple. The Night House is the latest horror film with an interest in using genre to explore mature themes (in this case, grief) and yet it’s not a simple meditation on the perils of obsessing about a lover who has passed out of our lives. Rather the film is a balance of The Invisible Man and Relic, recent character-driven films that expertly unpacked trauma without compromising on visually compelling sequences and scares.
The film opens an intermediate amount of time after Owen has taken his own life. Beth is not taking the loss well: she’s a few fingers deep into the booze every night and she’s already considering selling the house, which architect Owen designed specifically for them. Lucky for Beth, she’s not flying entirely solo: early scenes establish that there’s a kindly neighbour, Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall), as well as Beth’s school teacher friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg), keeping tabs on her.
But at night, when she’s by herself and boxing up possessions, Beth spirals. She discovers a book where Owen sketched an identical house that mirrors theirs; it also contains mysterious scribbling that references mazes and sorcery. And then there’s the picture of a woman who bears a striking resemblance to her in Owen’s phone, which hints at an extra-marital affair.
The Night House gets a lot of mileage out of Beth coming to grips with the realization that she didn’t truly know her husband (but still unabashedly loves him). She’s also contending with otherworldly events that suggest there is some kind of presence in the house with her: texts and footsteps that disappear, songs on the radio and, at one point, even a message written in steam on the mirror. Is it Owen…or something else?
These are fairly standard ghost tropes, and while Collins and Piotrowski never outright suggest that Beth is losing her grip on reality due to her drinking and grief, that straightforward reading is certainly possible. Regardless of whether the strange events are real, however, The Night House is steeped in bizarre moments, including the realization that the replica house exists, the discovery of a sexualized figurine, and confirmation of Beth’s doppelganger.
Throughout it all, Beth is never less than believably human. This is in no small part thanks to Hall’s absolutely empathetic performance: she vacillates between brittle, angry, wounded, and inquisitive as she turns her marriage into a detective story in order to uncover the truth. There’s even some comedy woven into the mix, such as when Hall dresses down a belligerent student’s mother. When quizzed about why she took a particular day off, Hall point blank outlines the details of Owen’s suicide (which doubles as exposition for the audience).
It’s a totally badass, cheer-worthy moment, but more importantly, it offers the audience insight into who this woman is. She’s strong and acerbic; she’s worth rooting for, even when the shit begins to hit the fan.
Which is exactly what happens in the last act. While the middle act trades scares for mystery as Beth uncovers more and more unsavoury elements, the finale is a full-on action set piece. As the poltergeist-like activity in the house escalates, Bruckner and his FX team deliver a bevvy of suitably unnerving imagery as Beth combats a presence glimpsed exclusively in shadow and reflection.
It’s gorgeous and terrifying, culminating in an ending that is surprisingly introspective, powerful and ambiguous.
The Bottom Line: If the idea of mashing up the gaslighting and FX of The Invisible Man with the emotionally resonant character study of Relic is appealing, then The Night House is for you. 4/5
The Night House is in theatres Aug 20, 2021