David Bruckner’s 2017 folk horror film “The Ritual” explored the dangers that lie in the wilderness, following a group of friends dealing with their own personal loss and grief while confronting ancient forest monsters. For his follow-up, “The Night House,” we retreat to the indoors, though this home offers no protection from the demons within, or from the beyond.
The screenplay, by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, is lean and spare, a showcase for star Rebecca Hall, who owns the screen as the freshly widowed Beth, confronting the ghost of her husband, Owen (Evan Jonigkeit), who has recently committed suicide, a shock to all who knew him. Bruckner employs visual storytelling to lay it out, the camera drifting over used tissues, pill bottles, framed photos, empty pillows. Beth is isolated in the lakeside home that Owen designed and built for them, tormented by the sight of the rowboat where he shot himself, questioning what could have led to this. The answers she receives are more horrific than she could have imagined.
Alone at home, Beth swills brandy, watching their wedding videos and poring over her husband’s sketchbooks, practically conjuring up the nightmares and spectral encounters that she experiences in the dead of night. Bruckner utilizes the space of the house beautifully to create an ominous sense of mood and atmosphere, animating objects like the stereo, mirrors and glass doors to create suspense and allow the spirit to reveal itself. Sound is a huge part of the horror: stereos blare, gun shots ring out, the air itself buzzes, screams and roars at random. Even the disparate spaces where Beth finds herself waking up, such as the bathroom floor, are confounding; the geography of the home is never quite clear, dark spaces yawn in front of her, concealing the secrets her husband kept.
Hall is surrounded by fantastic supporting performances by Jonigkeit, Vondie Curtis-Hall and Sarah Goldberg, but she owns every second of “The Night House.” Her performance is surprising, unpredictable and mesmerizing, turning the grieving widow trope on its head. Rather than cowering and weeping in her haunted house, she’s brash, forthright, determined; even insouciant to the point of making others around her uncomfortable. Beth is refreshingly blunt, she says what she means, she yanks the door open and screams into the night sky; she dares Owen’s ghost to show himself. She’s just this side of funny, and her complex emotions and reactions are fundamentally more realistic and relatable.
What’s happening in Beth’s house is indeed terrifying. But what’s happening in reality, as she digs through Owen’s possessions and goes on wild-goose chases seemingly inspired by dreams, is even worse. What she uncovers in the real world is so much scarier, so much darker, so much more morally, ethically and intimately complicated than the supernatural swerve the film ultimately lands on. What precedes this turn is so daring you can’t help but feel a bit disappointed that the film didn’t fully embrace that darkness. Ghouls have nothing on the horrors that humans can enact.
Yet, Beth faces down her demons with a kind of unbridled courage that is rarely seen in a haunted house film, and it is absolute bravura work from Hall, encased in the thoughtful and perfectly executed craftsmanship that Bruckner brings to the horror genre.
‘THE NIGHT HOUSE’
3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: R (for some violence/disturbing images, and language including some sexual references)
Running time: 1:48
Where to watch: In theaters Friday
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