Signal Horizon

See Beyond

{Movie Review} The Night House (2021)

David Bruckner takes big swings. His most recent movie, The Ritual based off of the novel by Adam Neville intermixes stellar visual effects with the old gods of cosmic horror. This combination of real and magical made it a powerful recitation on grief and mourning. That combination also made it one of my favorites of that year. The Night House seems to be working with the same set of tools. Beth (Rebecca Hall) is still reeling from the suicide of her husband a few days prior when weird occurrences around their lake home lead her to believe that not only did she not know who her husband was but that the nature of her reality may be changing as well.

The movie is mostly successful with Rebecca Hall’s performance as the grieving wife providing all the emotional momentum of the movie. She is angry. Angry at her husband for leaving. Angry at her friends and neighbors for withholding information. But mostly she is angry at the world for leaving her in this position. If Hall’s seething anger was so white hot and her moments of utter devastation so entirely believable the movie would not be nearly as successful. As she starts to break down the movie asks that you pick which road you think she is traveling down. Is it the road of the supernatural coupled with a silhouette monster (more on that later) who always seems to be lurking. Or a more terrifying road of mental illness where our monsters are just as real and their impacts even more devastating.

Gothika Meets Before I Wake

The Night House does not allow its audience a ton of time to process the events prior to the start of the movie. We pretty much pick up a few days after Beth’s husband has shot himself on a rowboat in the middle of the lake that their house is built on. It is a house that he designed and built and as the movie progresses we realize it is not the only house he has built on the lake. Which is why when Beth goes back to school to finish grading for the year and is confronted by a parent whose child received a C she snaps and offers a frank evaluation of how much she cares about the grade of that child. She essentially says what every teacher has thought. In that way Bruckner gets teachers. As public figures we are often asked to put our own families on the backburner while we deal with everyone else’s family trauma. What if that trauma is our own and it is overwhelming? It is a throw away scene that is played as much for shock and laughter as it is for the truthfulness of the message but boy did it resonate, especially as Beth’s own mental illness(?) starts to play out.

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

As Beth’s starts to see visions of the other house we also see that the other inhabitants looks like her as well. Not identical but rather as Beth starts to find pictures of these women they are close enough in appearance to her that it causes Beth’s bestfriend and fellow teacher Claire (played to perfection with the dogged tiredness of a teacher preparing for summer break by Sarah Goldberg) to comment that he certainly had a type. The second act plays out a lot like Gothika in that Beth must figure out what all of these women represent as a means of getting the dreams to stop. It doesn’t have the twist ending or the trite storytelling that the Halle Berry vehicle does but it is better because of those omissions.

As Beth drinks more her “dreams” start to reveal that a monster who only exists in the silhouette of objects around her house may be the real cause of Owen’s suicide and Beth’s descent into madness. The monster is absolutely terrifying and creative. He is a monster made out of the void that other objects leave. It is a tremendous metaphor for how losing a loved one makes all of us feel. It is the absence of that person that is the real reason we mourn. It is the boogeyman coming for us all. The monster in The Night House is more than willing to fill those voids. The mind as monster generator allows Bruckner to create entirely new horrific elements that made it feel like the very best elements of Mike Flannigan’s Before I Wake without the childlike whimsy that centers it.

The Night House and Ambiguity

The Night House has some problems. The ambiguity of the films ending makes everything that comes before it a little suspect. If the movie is purely about mental illness how it treats the husbands role could be pretty rough. We are not entirely certain what drove the husband to suicide and the note he left to Beth before he did it is equally as confusing as it is problematic. The trailer gives away exactly what it says so no spoilers there but the crux of the movie revolves around one of the words in that note, nothing. The NeverEnding Story creates a villain out of that word and The Night House in turn makes that monster even more sinister. The logic of that monster, and what it wants is never really clear and as a result it lends to a more esoteric translation of the movies themes and ideas. The Night House would have been absolutely stunning if it were just a creature feature like The Ritual. While The Ritual is rich with subtext one might be hard pressed to take the movie at anything other than face value. The Night House is much murkier and as a result allows space for an equally murky message about mental illness.

From a horror perspective The Night House has some absolutely killer scares that left me with my hands over my face. It proves Bruckner is a visionary director that has learned to effectively dabble in cosmic horror. It makes me thrilled to see what he does with the Hellraiser reboot which he is shooting as we speak.

The Night House premiers Thursday August 19th in a theatre near you.

Courtesy of Searchlight