The last film to get its world premiere as part of Sundance’s Midnight program was Remi Weekes’ “His House,” the kind of confident debut that from start-to-finish feels like beholding a major new vision in horror. "His House" shows Weekes' already wide range in creating the unsettling to making scenes that will make audiences scream, all while getting people to empathize with a refugee couple’s story by way of a haunted apartment.
It starts with a couple from Sudan, who have become refugees in Britain after trying to escape on a boat that capsized, killing many people including their young daughter. They've been given the opportunity for housing because someone in bureaucracy considers them "one of the the good ones." They’re placed into an apartment that is nightmarishly dirty—mysterious holes in the walls, there's roaches, and the lights don’t turn on. On top of that, they seem to be the only immigrants in the neighborhood, and each time they step outside, they get death glares. From the start, “His House” sucks you in with having hope for this couple to find some kind of new life in this impossible system, but a growing unease about what kind of trap they might be in.
The true terror, however, is inside the apartment, so it’s worth pointing out that a case worker played by Matt Smith is nothing like the film’s true villain. It’s the dark corners of the place that wield a viciously frightening power that Weekes quickly builds to in his first act, based on the claustrophobic scenario. The husband, played by Sope Dirisu, starts to hear things in the walls, and he tries to see what's on the other side. I can’t remember the last time a horror movie made me scream out loud, and then proceed to watch much of it in between my fingers.
In one of his many wise choices, Weekes knows that an audience can get familiar with a type of horror presence, so he works toward a different horrifying concept in his second half. It’s a little shaky making the transition, but Weekes is able to create big developments with his characters, story, and even point-of-view while maintaining emotional focus. “His House” is also about this marriage that is becoming strained because of a cultural disconnect. The husband and his wife (Wunmi Mosaku) start to see some of the same things, but have different interpretations, parallel to their feelings about trying to integrate into this society that seems to care little about them. She tells a case worker that she has survived by trying to not belong anywhere, a reference to surviving in Sudan; he finds himself in a blindingly white department store, trying to find clothes like the big Caucasian models have in the display.
Weekes' narrative is comprised so many bold choices, especially in how he flips the more usual track for a horror movie. He gets us emotionally involved with the more outright terrifying stuff in the beginning, and as our heart rate starts to correct itself, the second half takes viewers to something that is horrifying in a whole different way. His point-of-view visuals have a devastating emotional impact too, like when his camera spins around the wife as she struggles to get directions from some cruel schoolboys who mock her accent. And as Weekes’ horror proves to be multi-faceted, he confidently builds the pacing of certain moments to unleash shocking surprises in the second half, which hit differently than his grade-A scares. In Weekes’ vision, which recalls early George Romero and Wes Craven, there are numerous terrors for us to be haunted by, and are all part of a tale that is as thoughtfully executed as it is terrifying.
David Bruckner’s “The Night House” has one of the loudest and longest jump scares I’ve ever experienced—a brazenly loud home stereo, emitting some type of static nonsense, caused the woman next to me to grip her partner for dear life. That aggressive burst proves to be one of the movie’s few memorable elements, aside from a grief-stricken performance by Rebecca Hall.
Hall plays a schoolteacher named Beth, who is widowed at beginning of the film. Her husband Owen (Evan Jongkeit) has just committed suicide, leaving her behind with a home on a lake and a wealth of bizarre secrets that she learns over the film’s duration. The story focuses not so much on making us feel the loss of her relationship by looking to the past, but instead watching the way that the loss has left her lonely and a little bonkers. In both extensive silent passages and gloomy discussions that she has with friends, the movie struggles to say anything interesting about grief. Beth keeps having instances where she thinks she’s walking around her house at night trying to communicate with a force that might be Owen, and then wakes up on the floor the next morning. She’s not sure if those are dreams, or some type of sleep paralysis. Some type of force is tapping on her window at night, suddenly turning on her and Owen’s wedding song before shutting it off.
The script by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski leads Beth to more of Owen’s secrets, and they come out in clumsy, cliche ways. Yes, there’s a scene in which she flips through the kind of freaky book you wouldn’t expect your partner to have, just so that we can peek at the weird sketches and notes Owen (might have) written down like “Trick It - Don’t Listen To It!” Instead of making the story more ominous with its very broody tone, “The Night House” negotiates both lacking ideas about loss and dull horror execution.
To Bruckner’s credit, he does achieve a few uneasy moments. But they’re related far more to dreading Beth tip toeing into a dark room of her home, instead of the flashier, louder stuff that he often throws at his audience.
Hall is game for a concept that requires a lot of inner tension and on-the-nose displays of sadness—like dramatically pounding back some wine—but they make for bland scenes of emotional turmoil. Her performance becomes a little more interesting toward the middle, when all of the unexplainable things happening in her house (like when the force suddenly turns her speakers ALL THE WAY UP after Bruckner does a quiet close-up on her sleeping face) start to get to her. She cracks, and eventually she is so desperate for Owen to come back that she’s not scared by the very real threat that could be in her house.
And there are, dear reader, many weird elements packed into “The Night House,” even if only a few of them register as entirely thought-out. It’s the kind of movie that would make for a fun challenge in how to explain what it all means in as few sentences as possible, in part because it does make sense by the end. I haven’t even mentioned Stacy Martin’s brief role as another woman in Owen’s life, or the second house across the lake, just a couple of bizarre plot threads that fail to mix under Bruckner’s care.