A tasty dish is almost always prepared with ingredients that already have a well-established and proven taste and flavour, and a skilled chef will use them in such a way that’s uniquely his, to prepare his celebrated own secret sauce. But sometimes, the centrepiece of a dish is so marvellous, like a richly marbled steak, or a prime shiitake if you’re vegetarian, that it takes a special level of culinary ineptitude to really mess it up instead.
I believe it’s fundamentally not all too different from haunted house movies, especially after seeing The Night House. It has Rebecca Hall (The Awakening, Godzilla vs. Kong) as the splendid centrepiece. The chef on duty is director David Bruckner, who has given us The Ritual (2017) and V/H/S/94 before, so the kitchen, if you will, is all set.
Hall portrays Beth, a recently widowed elementary school teacher who’s reeling from her husband Owen’s (Evan Jonigkeit, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Bone Tomahawk) unexpected suicide. He left her a perplexing and ominous note, and she spends her evenings drinking wine and browsing through his stuff when supernatural hallucinations – or are they? – come upon her. She also finds a weirdly reversed floor plan of her lakeside villa, Owen’s self-designed and realized dream house that she alone now lives in. As the supernatural occurrences around her intensify, she finds out that Owen harboured a terrible secret, one that may very well claim her own life as well.
Beth is a grounded woman who likes to mostly keep to herself. She never succumbs to hysterical or lamenting fits and prefers to take a cynical approach to her situation, She also likes a stiff drink but, barring the occasional socially awkward situation caused by her inebriation, The Night House never goes beyond portraying this as part of her coping mechanism. The only person she allows to come any closer to her is her caring friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg, Gambit, The Report) and friendly neighbour cum handyman Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall, Die Hard 2, Blue Bayou).
Writers-team Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (Super Dark Times, Boo!) weave some threads into the proceedings to keep things interesting. Beth has had a near-death experience before, caused by an accident; something that may be connected to the hauntings she now experiences. She also tracks down a woman that looks like her. A woman who works at a bookstore where Owen once procured a book to investigate a strange figurine she found among his belongings. And with whom Owen may have had an affair. And while all this never really elevates the story above cliché territory, also thanks to Bruckner’s deliberate directing it at least spices The Night House up enough to keep it involving.
The supporting cast doesn’t grow above the stereotypes – overly caring friend, overly friendly neighbour – their characters were written as, but they don’t really need to. The Night House is Rebecca Hall’s show and Bruckner wisely puts her front and center as she delivers an impressive performance as the strong yet vulnerable, traumatized yet not pitiable, persistent yet sympathetic, and totally relatable Beth – all this without any scene-chewing.
Hall is in total control of her character as she portrays the different layers of her personality, seemingly effortlessly putting her vast acting range on display. Hall is one powerhouse of a thespian and it definitely shows here. She has already been widely awarded for her own movie Passing, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if she became part of the Oscar conversation someday soon. Sadly, odds will be that she’ll be lost for the horror genre by then as well, but that’s how it goes I guess.
It all boils down to a satisfying film that, if led by a lesser talented actress, would still be okay but otherwise unremarkable. Bruckner must be applauded for having realized what he had in his hands without letting his ego get in the way by fighting her to get pole position in The Night House somehow. He plays to the film’s strengths as he gives Hall all the time and space she needs to carry it.
The Night House works totally fine as what’s basically a haunted house film, and Bruckner quietly but skillfully goes about his directing business by utilizing Hall’s onscreen breathing room to create a dynamic visual arc where the economically dosed scares come in swift and hard.
Effects work is a bit hit-or-miss, especially the CG looks a bit dodgy at moments, but not bad enough to take me out of the movie and it’s not a barrage of suspenseful moments and frights anyway. Neither is it a deep exploration of dealing with past trauma and grief. It’s a scary journey in which we join Beth and her ordeals, her search for the truth behind what happened and happens and why, and for what’s real and not real.
In the final act, all of The Night House’s story threads are neatly tied together in a finale that will maybe be satisfying for many viewers but for me felt like a bit of a sappy cop-out. I haven’t found any relevant production history about this, but my tea leaves are suggesting to me that there may have been a little last-minute rewrite in play here – that’s how it felt like to me at least.
Maybe we’ll know more once the silver platter releases with extras hit the market. Either way, The Night House is not a total letdown either and not nearly bad enough to sink the movie. I just think a bit more ambiguity would have worked better here, and the ending felt kind of dumb for me compared to the level of writing of the rest of the movie.
In conclusion, The Night House is probably not going to change your worldview. It may not even make it to your favourite (horror)movie top-10 for 2022. But what it will do is make you remember Rebecca Hall. And the movie will keep you solidly entertained, and depending on your resilience to horror, a bit spooked at times, for its 107-minutes running time. It didn’t feel that long either, which also speaks in its favour.