Film

Review: The Night House Is an Atmospheric, Layered Thriller About Grief and the After life

Seemingly once or twice a month lately, a film is released that originally debuted at Sundance 2020 (Nine Days was the last one, I believe), and it’s actually been strangely enjoyable rediscovering these films, many of which I truly enjoyed the first time, including the cerebral horror offering The Night House, from director David Bruckner (The Signal, The Ritual, and an upcoming Hellraiser remake). Written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, the film begins in the immediate aftermath of a personal tragedy—the unexpected suicide of architect Owen (Evan Jonigkeit), the husband to teacher Beth (Rebecca Hall), who is now left to exist alone in the spacious lake house he built for them to share.

The Night House

Image courtesy of 20th Century

Beth is in the deepest, darkest throes of mourning when she begins to have nightmares that feel hauntingly real and seem to indicate that her husband’s presence is still very much in the house. Combined with disturbing visions she has in and around the house, not only does Owen seem to be fully present, but he may be attempting to warn her of something sinister that is meaning to do her harm. The Night House doesn’t slip into traditional scary ghost storytelling or anything that easily categorizable (which doesn’t mean it isn’t as scary or creepy as it can be, at times). Instead, it digs deep into the question of what exactly happens to our souls when we die. Strangely, Beth thinks she knows the answer, because when she was a teenager, she was in a horrible car accident that left her dead for four minutes. When people asked her afterward what the great beyond looked like, she always says she doesn’t remember, but the truth (which she only told her husband) is that she experienced and saw nothing.

This story actually serves as a jumping off point for much of their marriage. Without realizing it, Owen never stopped thinking about Beth’s “nothingness,” and decided to investigate exactly what happens after we die. To that end, he causes more trouble than he could possibly have imagined, forcing him to go to extremes to protect his wife. Beth becomes fascinated with what Owen was up to before his death, and uncovers strange but seemingly unconnected clues like photos on his phone of women who vaguely look like her, blueprints for their house as well as a house with the exact reverse layout, and eventually, she even discovers said mirror-image house, which was in the early stages of being built.

Beth seeks help from her best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg), who lends an ear but can’t really comprehend what Beth is describing to her; her neighbor Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall), who is able to shed some light on her husband’s odd, secret behavior; and even one of the women from her husband’s phone (Stacy Martin as specialty book store employee Madelyne). But in the end, Beth must do her best to communicate directly with whatever is in her house to find answers.

There are two elements that stand out in The Night House, one of which is the visual language of the film, which shifts before our eyes to seemingly reveal ghost-like figures built into the architecture. The film isn’t above a jump scare or three, but it’s this more subtle imagery and the use of eerie sounds that give the movie its most disturbing moments. The other unique element is the character of Beth, who gets jumpy from time to time, but never runs away when she thinks there’s something in the house with her. She runs headfirst toward the presence because she wants answers or at least clues about where to find them. She’s determined and unafraid, even as she begins to suspect that whatever is communicating with her might not be her husband. She has already lost the thing most dear to her, after all, so she has nothing left to fear.

There’s a great scene near the beginning of the film in which Beth is confronted by a miffed parent about her son’s grade. The mother doesn’t know about Owen’s suicide, and Beth proceeds to quietly but completely tear this woman apart with the details of her husband’s death, shutting her down and making her problems seem too small and insignificant. It’s such a satisfying sequence, and it gives us our first glimpse into Hall’s commitment to this character and Beth’s commitment to cutting through the bullshit in her life to get to the truth. In the realm of horror movies, The Night House might be unconventional, but it’s no less powerful, atmospheric, or beautifully acted.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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