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The always great Rebecca Hall anchors the effective “The Night House,” an old-fashioned ghost story that reveals unimaginable truths after a shocking loss. Owing more to films like “Carnival of Souls” and “The Innocents” than most recent genre fare, it’s a very impressive mood generator, the kind of movie that wants you to be unsettled from very nearly its first frame all the way through its final one, and it mostly gets that job done. In terms of sheer craft, it’s the best work yet from David Bruckner (“The Ritual”) as he precisely slides his camera through the increasingly discomfiting life of a woman who is learning that she may actually be safer now with her husband haunting than she was living in the same house as him. With top-notch sound design to truly amplify the experience, this is a must-see for horror fans, one of the better genre pics of 2021.
Beth (Hall) has been struck numb with the sudden trauma of grief, and it’s the kind of grief that comes with a side of anger, as she’s furious at her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) for taking the boat out one morning and shooting himself in the head. He reportedly showed no signs of depression—as she says at one point, that was her thing—and Beth is just expected to keep unpacking at their lake house and going about her daily life as a teacher. As she opens boxes, she discovers some unusual possessions by Owen, including some books that appear to be about the occult and dark arts, complete with notes in the margin by her dead husband. What was he into?
At the same time, Beth keeps having intensifying nightmares. They typically take place in the lake house where she now resides alone, and they seem to be leading her places, including to another “mirror house” across the lake, and down to where Owen kept his darkest secrets. Why is she being shown these things? Hall deftly conveys a blend of anger, grief, and confusion that captures what it’s like to be left behind by suicide, wherein questions can never have concrete answers and loved ones naturally feel hurt by the decision to be left behind. She is a remarkable performer, doing some of her best work here in a part that requires a wide range of emotion. So many other actresses would have let the haunting do the work, but Hall knows that a film like this doesn’t connect without true, character-driven feelings at the center. It’s a performance that reminded me of Nicole Kidman in “The Others” or Toni Collette in “Hereditary”—two other turns wherein if they don’t commit 100%, the entire suspension of disbelief collapses.
The script by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski forces Beth to be as much of an investigator as a survivor. When someone dies at their own hand, people have a habit of saying that they must have been hiding something, and it feels like the writers started with that idea. What was Owen keeping from his wife and friends? Without spoiling anything, it was a lot. Even Owen’s dark secrets change shape over the course of this story. At first, it feels like it will be a simple tale of a widow discovering her husband’s secret life, especially after Beth finds a photo of another woman (Stacy Martin) on his phone. There’s more to it than that. Almost too much more. The final revelations of “The Night House” can be a bit difficult to unpack and connect back to the bulk of the film—I even had to email a colleague who asked me to try and explain the plot after the screening. I'm pretty sure that I get it, but I’m not fully convinced everything lines up.
This is not that harsh a criticism. Ghost stories should have a few gray areas and a few dots that don’t connect to one another. And “The Night House” works best when it’s not even trying to make sense, when we’re not sure if we’re awake or in a dream, if Beth is being warned or hunted by her visions. The sounds that go bump in the night, the wet footprints on a dock when no one else should be there, the writing in the fog on a shower mirror—these beats are brilliantly handled by Bruckner and Hall, who understand that uncertainty is the scariest state of being. Especially at night.