There have been so many paranormal chillers in the last decade that I didn't think anything new could be done with the genre. Then The Night House came walking in. Deftly avoiding all (or at least most) of the usual clichés, it tells a story that is intelligent, emotional, and incredibly eerie. This is not for people who want cheap thrills, it's for people who want genuine meaning in their horror. Everything about the movie packs a punch.
Beth (Rebecca Hall) is a school teacher whose husband Owen recently committed suicide "with a gun I didn't even know we had." She struggles to pick up the pieces. Best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg) tries to be supportive as best she can. Mostly, though, Beth is alone in the forest home Owen built for them. A kindly neighbor, Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall), keeps an eye on her.
I'll tread lightly going forward. Beth starts hearing weird noises at night. Some kind of presence, possibly Owen or possibly something else, seems to be making itself known. She also sees lights on across the lake, which is odd given that there are no homes over there. After discovering unusual pictures in her late husband's cellphone and bizarre design plans in his portfolio, she ventures across that lake in search of answers. What she finds is that there's a house after all, a mirror image version of hers, built by Owen for reasons she can't fathom. A shocking discovery inside makes even more questions arise.
The Night House has an inspired premise that hooks you from the start. The more Beth uncovers, the more shocking the film becomes. In the end, it takes all those shocks, as well as all the unanswered questions, and melds them profoundly. This is a film about grief, about the ties that bind people together, even in death. The secret at the center is satisfying because it adheres fully to the movie's internal logic, but also because it reveals something about the characters that deepens our empathy toward them. A lot of chillers are content to deliver a "we vanquished the spirit" ending. The Night House aims for something far more substantive.
Director David Bruckner (Southbound) achieves suspense in two vital ways. First, he sets and maintains a spooky, unsettling tone. The film is willing to be patient so that viewers can feel the ominous mood fester. Then, he adds ingeniously crafted scares. In one scene, Beth looks at what appears to be the simple outline of a pedestal against the background of a room. Then the outline moves, revealing it's actually in the form of a person. Keeping that balance between ambiance and overt jump scares guarantees that you can never fully rest during The Night House.
Another key element makes the movie special: Rebecca Hall. The actress gives a superb performance that is thoroughly convincing from start to finish. During the early scenes, our hearts break for the mourning Beth. Then, as the strange events start to take place, we worry about what they might mean for her. Hall grounds the movie, so that it feels real despite depicting things that are clearly in the realm of fantasy. She takes us on a journey with Beth, making every emotional stop along the way authentic. Because we care about the character, we care about everything else.
With a smart script by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, The Night House is horror movie that has a clever, poignant supernatural mystery at its core – a mystery that isn't predictable or obvious. The implications of it will stay with you after the end credits roll. At a time when chillers of this type have become so rote, it's gratifying to get one that brings innovation to the table. I loved every second of this film.
out of four
The Night House is rated R for some violence/disturbing images, and language including some sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.