If there’s one horror movie trick that works for me 100% of the time, it’s what I call the “Blow-Up”: the moment where a character is looking at a seemingly innocuous picture (or video, or audio recording) and slowly hones in on one terrifying or uncanny detail in the background. There just seems to be something so plausible about it to me– the idea that you might spot something just ambiguous enough that you might convince yourself you’re imagining it, but you know in your heart that you’re not. And just as frightening as the discovery itself is the potential for obsession, of staring at it and staring at it until you drive yourself crazy. The idea of a haunted photograph is enough to haunt you in its own right.
There are several moments like this in The Night House, the latest studio spookfest from director David Bruckner (The Ritual). When we first meet Beth (Rebecca Hall), she’s certainly in a position to be haunted. Following the shocking, completely unexpected suicide of her husband Owen, she is struggling to figure out how to put her life back together, absently grading papers and learning to live alone in the house that he built for the two of them. While sorting through Owen’s possessions, Beth discovers two things she can’t explain. First, a picture on his phone of a woman who looks almost exactly like her, but who she’s fairly confident is not her. Second, his blueprints for the house, which begin with architectural precision, but devolve into inscrutable patterns and nonsensical asides. There are other things, too– thumps in the night, muddy footprints on the dock, troubling dreams about a disorienting version of the house– but those she can chalk up to nerves and the numbness of grief. Those two pieces of physical evidence gnaw at her, however, and soon she starts trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on with her house, and who, exactly, her husband was.
In broad strokes, The Night House resembles the slick haunted house films popularized by horror megastudio Blumhouse Productions: efficient, well-produced thrillers in which an attractive nuclear family is terrorized in their upscale suburban home. The Night House ticks all of these boxes (save for the family), but with a few refreshing differences. For starters, while the film does contain the USDA’s required allotment of jump scares and Paranormal Activity, the film’s most memorable scares are of a more eldritch or liminal variety. We know there are ghosts, probably, but what’s really captivating is watching Beth unearth layer after layer of the weird stuff her husband was apparently into. The notes he left in the margins of his blueprints recall the gibberings of a Lovecraft protagonist after gazing upon some unspeakable cosmic terror. Later, when Beth finds evidence that Owen was dabbling in the occult, bringing to mind the obsessed antiheroes of Clive Barker (not for nothing is Bruckner slated to helm the upcoming Hellraiser reboot). The Night House ultimately lands in territory distinct from either of those two masters of horror, but the way it plays in the unseen raises similar hackles.
Another advantage The Night House has over similar films is Rebecca Hall. Hall is an always compelling actress, but her recent studio work has mostly relegated her to the sidelines in films like Iron Man 3 and Godzilla vs. Kong (to her credit, Hall infuses the phrase “Kong bows to no one!” with as much scientific gravitas as humanly possible). Here, however, Hall is allowed to stretch her legs in actual character. By the time we meet Beth she’s already been shattered by grief, but thanks to Hall’s soulful performance we almost instantly have a clear picture of her as a character: intelligent and independent, but with her share of demons even before her husband’s death. Hall portrays her with a mix of soul-baring intensity and wry humor. It’s one of those rarest horror movie characters and performances: one that would work just as well if it was not in a horror movie.
And in some stretches, The Night House almost doesn’t play as one. As Beth spirals into obsession over Owen’s past, she begins to more closely resemble a film noir detective than a conventional horror final girl, complete with personal demons and self-destructive tendencies. Beth’s search expands the narrative beyond the haunted house, and each new location, character, and artifact her quest leads her to only deepens the mystery. In one standout scene, Beth interrogates a young woman (Nymphomaniac’s Stacy Martin) who may or may not be her husband’s mistress. If this were a conventional mystery, this probably would have been the climactic scene, and it could have easily worked as such.
But, of course, The Night House is a horror movie, and a damn effective one. This is not by any stretch a “slow burn”– the story moves at a brisk pace, with a new twist every couple of scenes– but it mines the uneasy feeling of being alone in an otherwise normal house late at night when you’re already in a weird mood. Long stretches pass with no dialogue, and a good number of the scares are things which, on their own, could probably be laughed off: a strange noise in the distance, a CD player which kicks on at inopportune moments to their wedding song (Richard and Linda Thompson’s “The Calvary Cross,” for those keeping score), and shapes in the distance which seem to be negative space and optical illusion, but sure do seem to be in the shape of a human being. It’s a credit to the film, and the character, that little time is wasted on denial. Beth is pretty sure within the first ten minutes that she’s got ghosts, and she’s determined to get to the bottom of it.
The Night House does run out of steam to some extent toward the end; the climax devolves into the same MC Escher nightmare corridors we’ve seen in half a dozen Blumhouse productions by now, and the ultimate resolution, while inventive, doesn’t quite feel like a satisfying payoff for either the emotional throughlines or the Lovecraftian horror elements. Still, this is above-average studio horror, genuinely scary with a terrific central performance. I’d say it will make you leave the lights on, but, as the film makes entirely clear, sometimes a tasteful, well-lit house is just as scary as an old, dark one.
The Night House
dir. David Bruckner
Opens Friday, 8/20 at Coolidge Corner Theatre (and elsewhere)