REVIEW: The Night House [2021]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 108 minutes
    Release Date: August 20th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Searchlight Pictures
    Director(s): David Bruckner
    Writer(s): Ben Collins & Luke Piotrowski

You’re safe now.

Beth (Rebecca Hall) is left a widow without warning the day her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) decided to take his own life with a gun she didn’t even know he owned. The boat has been cleaned (he covered it in plastic and took off his clothes before pulling the trigger), but it’s hard not to look at it and think about the horror it witnessed. That’s why their neighbor Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) decided to cover it “for the season” and why Beth can’t help lingering by the docks to spy upon wet footsteps seemingly coming from the lake itself. Her best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg) wishes she’d come stay over at her place, but Owen designed and built their house himself. It’s all Beth has left of him.

And with those footsteps comes a presence. Whether the product of sleepwalking, sleep paralysis, or grief, Beth sees and feels someone in the shadows. The radio turns on and off in the middle of the night and a voice can be heard asking her to come downstairs, but she simply ends up waking the next morning alone. She tries to ignore it by sticking to her routine despite knowing that guarantees having to field questions like, “Did you suspect anything?” She returns from work with boxes to pack Owen’s stuff away out of rage, frustration, and sadness only to find weird books talking about caerdroia (Welsh mazes created in fields by shepherds) and even weirder sketches of their home with unexplained drawings and text describing “trickery.”

This is but one puzzle that screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski include in The Night House to beg the question of what Owen was thinking during the days and months leading up to his suicide. These books and drawings become little Easter eggs of sorts—existing to get our wheels spinning, to distract, and to earn smiles from those who infer upon their purpose in the bigger picture. They do none of those things for Beth, though. She dismisses them completely without delving deeper into their meaning beyond where they lead her on a purely associative level. She’s too busy engaging with the second puzzle’s supernatural underpinnings. Is Owen speaking to her from the grave? Is that light across the lake a house that shouldn’t exist there?

That’s where director David Bruckner enters the equation with some of the best jump scares and blocking set-ups I’ve seen in a while. He got me with a double whammy where I wrongly assumed the scares were finished right before another leapt onto the screen to catch us stragglers who fended off the prior jolts. The sharp cuts from night into day, a brilliant transition from a slow zoom towards Hall’s face as she falls asleep to the deafening roar of the radio, and a surreal moment outside with the ghosts of women running past her into the water are all unforgettable, but nothing sears itself into our vision more than the moving shadows of an unknown man in silhouette that dissolve with a shift of her head.

It’s a fantastic visual trick that uses the curves of the columns and shelves within Beth’s house to create shapes only visible if you’re standing in the perfect spot. It’s scary because the effect doesn’t need anything to be added into the frame that isn’t already there. The gimmick gets more elaborate as the film progresses, but its formal simplicity is where it truly shines. The same can be said about the fluid shifting between reality and reflection courtesy of nightmares flipping Beth from her house to its reverse so she can witness a past she cannot fathom being authentic. Because if what she sees is real, Owen is revealed as someone wholly unrecognizable to her. Maybe he needs to be so she can begin to move on.

That’s the metaphorical pathway I assumed Bruckner and company were taking us on, but Collins and Piotrowski decide on a much more literal one instead—for better or worse. With a bit of wordplay and the obvious reason for anyone to “trick” something away from oneself inside a horror film, they take Beth on a devastating journey through her late husband’s dual life while also forcing her to remember details of her own that have been kept secret for years. Things can feel convenient in the way crucial information is hastily dumped on us precisely because the script needs it for what’s coming next, but the whole never gets so egregiously manipulative that I found myself actively checking out. If anything, I almost wish they gave us more.

I do like that the filmmakers allow us the benefit of the doubt to put two and two together ourselves, though. But having three parts of those four ostensibly exposed as red herrings also leaves something to be desired—especially when our discovery often consists of blatant set-ups like showing us photos of nameless women that include one familiar actor (Stacy Martin) and thus one logical subject with which to gather more information. So much of what occurs is neat and tidy in a way that ruins the chance for The Night House to unfold organically rather than on a pre-determined track. Even a scene of a mother asking about her son’s grades that becomes a funny way to explain how Owen dies is calculated to a fault.

Nothing, however, is more fabricated than an ending that sadly leaves the brooding atmosphere, stylish directing, and captivating mystery with a whimper politely asking us to put everything back in the box and pretend it was all a metaphor. It’s a clunky move undercutting the ruthless moments of evil and destruction of spirit that came before. Luckily, we have Hall mesmerizing us via a performance that’s as powerful emotionally as it is physically (she’s dealing with a ghost through much of the runtime that can interact with her touch). I only wish the film could have mined the former deep enough to prevent it from becoming a hollow construct solely there to prop up the latter. As it is now, the most memorable pieces ultimately outweigh the whole.

[1] Rebecca Hall in the film THE NIGHT HOUSE. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved
[2] Rebecca Hall and Vondie Curtis-Hall in the film THE NIGHT HOUSE. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved
[3] Sarah Goldberg and Rebecca Hall in the film THE NIGHT HOUSE. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

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