Horror movies about grief are nothing new, but sometime in the last decade they went from being fairly novel and exciting (2018’s Hereditary remains among the best films of that decade, period) to rote and tiresome (did anyone even see Separation from earlier this year?). Unfortunately, some filmmakers tend to incorporate ideas like grief and loss into their horror films as a way to make them appear prestigious without ever exploring those concepts in any meaningful way.
The Night House is the latest entry in this thriving subgenre to receive a wide release. Quality-wise, it falls somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. There’s plenty to appreciate in the latest feature from director David Bruckner (The Ritual): a funny and off-kilter lead performance by Rebecca Hall; striking use of hazy digital cinematography; and genuinely unsettling imagery. On the other hand, much of what makes the film so intriguing in its first couple of acts — its patient pacing and rather compelling central mystery — backfires once it reveals itself to be a deeply silly haunted-house movie in its final third.
The “night house” of the movie’s title refers to the one occupied by the recently widowed Beth (Hall), whom we meet fresh from the funeral of her husband, Owen (Evan Jonigkeit), pounding red wine and passing out nightly on her living-room couch. Spooky shenanigans begin happening soon after when Beth wakes in the middle of the night to cryptic text messages from her dead husband as well as other standard Creepy Ghost Stuff like muddy footprints and speakers that start blaring music on their own.
Those paranormal activities may just sound like more of the same, but what distinguishes these sequences in The Night House from its genre peers is the inventiveness of their execution. For once, praise the lord, the jump scares here are actual scares and not merely cheap excuses to startle audiences. In one sequence, Beth is stirred out of a drunken slumber by the walls of her house literally shaking, as a fixture in the wall threatens to fall off its hinges. It’s a trope horror fans have seen countless times before, but Bruckner manages to make it feel fresh through ear-shattering sound design and frantic camera movements. There’s an immediacy to the filmmaking that places the viewer right alongside Beth; you’re not just shocked by a loud noise, you’re completely disoriented by something terrifying and inexplicable.
Shortly thereafter, Beth uncovers some disconcerting details about her deceased husband: odd pictures of women on his phone; bizarre labyrinthian blueprints for a new house; disturbing voodoo dolls. Alongside all the ghostly antics in her home, this emerging mystery turns Beth’s grieving process on its head.
Few actresses working today harbor the range and emotional potency of Hall, and watching her give it her all here is enough to make The Night House worth your time. While out for drinks with a few co-workers, Beth reveals the details of her husband’s ambiguous suicide note despite the inappropriate social circumstances. It’s a great scene in particular because of how Hall plays it. She’s many things at once during this confession — flippant, funny, tormented and borderline unhinged. You can see glimpses of the person Beth was before tragedy struck her life, as well as this unrecognizable person she’s turning into in front of her friends’ eyes.
Any nuance in Hall’s character should be almost solely credited to the actress’s performance. As the movie slow-burns its way toward a climax, The Night House becomes less about Beth’s journey and more about the increasingly convoluted mythology of its supernatural threat. To its credit, the film continues to be visually gorgeous, as the final act of the movie trades in its cool blue tones for deep, shadowy reds. Still, what’s happening during much of it is frankly, well, quite dumb. When the first two-thirds of a horror flick promises to really get under your skin, it’s a disappointment when you’re sent home with nothing more than a surface-level spook show.