Premise: A widow begins to uncover her recently deceased husband’s disturbing secrets.
In telling the story of a widow diving into secrets her deceased husband kept from her, The Night House offers a mix of both good and bad elements. While it is painfully convoluted at times, Rebecca Hall’s performance and some clever visuals work well to elevate the film above being a merely forgettable psychological horror film. There are numerous moments where shapes and figures appear in an M.C. Escher style optical illusion to startle and surprise both Hall’s character and the audience. And there are more than enough jump scares to satisfy most viewers, including one particularly impressive sequence where the chaos that causes the initial jolt seems as though it’ll never end. To that end, The Night House doesn’t skimp on the frights.
But even while director David Bruckner impresses with effective jump scares and clever optical illusions, it’s clear this is Rebecca Hall’s show through and through. As Beth, a teacher grieving the sudden death of her husband, Hall infuses her performance with a sarcastic energy that would otherwise feel completely out of place and incongruous with the film’s tone. That is, if she didn’t weave this sarcastic defense mechanism throughout the character’s deep-seated grief so effectively.
In an early scene, Beth challenges the parent of one of her students out of frustration during a pedantic confrontation regarding the student’s grade. She does this by bluntly telling the parent that she wasn’t available for the student’s rescheduled presentation because her husband had just committed suicide. This immediately saps the energy out of the confrontation and deflates the parent’s indignation. Yet, Hall’s performance in this scene doesn’t express Beth as an unsympathetic person looking to gain the upper-hand in a conversation. Instead, she’s a woman grieving and seeking to end a pedantic encounter so she can resume grieving. The result of scenes like this (of which there are a few) is a surprisingly captivating display of a character suffering intense psychological drama without steeping the film in a tone of total heart-wrenching despair a la Hereditary or Midsommar. In fact, it imbues The Night House with a slightly unique, offbeat take on the emotional grief horror of its contemporaries.
Where the film struggles, however, is in the general direction it leads Beth (and, therefore, the audience) throughout the narrative. There are large swaths of runtime devoted to Beth’s uncovering of secrets her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) kept from her throughout their marriage. Unfortunately, the problem lies in the film’s insistence on making these harsh truths and surprise details needlessly shrouded in layers of convolution. Certain details come to light only to serve as red herrings while others lead down paths that almost gleefully clash with some big (yet improperly built toward) reveals in the final act. It makes following the narrative of The Night House feel needlessly like a chore that demands attention you may not care enough to devote to it.
To add to the convoluted storytelling, the film nearly squanders its unique central character by being a bit derivative in other aspects. Fans of Stephen King’s work will undoubtedly see The Night House‘s plot as surprisingly close to that of King’s 2006 novel Lisey’s Story, which was very recently adapted into an 8-part limited series for AppleTV+, and is therefore pretty fresh in some minds. The Night House also clearly owes perhaps too large a debt toward films like The Invisible Man (last year’s Blumhouse iteration, in particular). To that end, even though Rebecca Hall does give a spectacular performance overall, there’s one scene that barely passes muster. In the scene, she is embracing an invisible spirit in front of her, miming holding her deceased husband. Had the film cast someone of a lesser caliber, it would have likely resulted in a scene of laughably cringeworthy spectacle. As it stands, Hall sells it well enough in the moment, though its prominence in the film’s marketing materials does inspire some head-scratching in that it appears slightly silly out of context.
These comparisons would be, at best, mild distractions. However, coupled with an intentionally difficult to follow narrative, they become slightly more prominent. As the tension ratchets up and the supernatural spookiness hits an apex, the viewer is left to decipher mismatching scraps of information that’s been presented haphazardly throughout the film. This can be fun in the right context, but even if the “square peg, round hole” plot was entertaining to put together, the challenge is wasted by a pretty straightforward and relatively brief resolution that will likely leave you unsatisfied and underwhelmed.
At times, The Night House feels like a paint by numbers psychological horror film with a surprising amount of visual flair. Other times, it’s a vehicle for a really fantastic and varied performance in lead actress Rebecca Hall. And yet, it is also guilty of being a convoluted mess housing bizarre occurrences in a maze of barely coherent plot threads. When it works, The Night House delivers effective jump scares and clever visual frights. Ultimately, however, the good parts of The Night House fight an uphill battle against a story that doesn’t quite know what it is until the last several minutes, when you’re likely to have stopped caring enough to piece it together.
The Night House opens August 20th in theaters.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.
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