Look, between David Bruckner’s new supernatural thriller The Night House and Sean Durkin’s unsettling psychological character study Martha Marcy May Marlene, I think I’m all set on ever visiting the Catskills. But while Durkin used the environment to set a mood with just a dash of horror, Bruckner’s effort is much easier placed within the genre’s safe zones. And there are many other horror films that it will make you remember. Set in the idyllic lakeside of the New York woodlands, The Night House has terror lurking just beneath its beautiful surface, and delivers some spunky atmospherics that diminish the basicness of some of its genre conventions.
Left alone in their large, modern bespoke home in the aftermath of her husband Owen’s (Evan Jonigkeit) sudden suicide, Rebecca Hall stars as Beth, a high school speech teacher in mourning. She rewatches videos of her and Owen together and downs booze in the night, wrapping up the school year. Beth is traumatized not only by the loss of Owen, but by her own past brush with death. With the watchful gazes of her fellow teacher friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg) and her trusty neighbor friend Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) helpless, Beth is taking his death about as well as you might expect. Soon, Beth begins seeing visions of Owen that bring revelations of the occult and the suggestion that Owen may have had some secrets.
Reinvention of the genre is not the name of The Night House’s game, and it easily marks itself as the least extreme film on Brucker’s resume (the male friendship folklore horror The Ritual remains his best). But there is a surefooted panache to the approach Bruckner offers with the film’s visuals that entices, making for a slicker and more inventive film than the similar ones its premise calls to mind. And not to render it to merely a film with sleek style and meager substance, the film has more bleak views on life and death, willing to be opaque in what it spells out about its haunting. Horror films of late about trauma or grief can be blunt instruments, and The Night House at least allows us to piece together the full implications of its ghost story in a way that is more psychologically complex and ambiguous. But audiences wanting easy, closed answers might be left cold.
And then there is the appeal of an arresting, gruffly charismatic performance from Rebecca Hall. At its best, The Night House serves as another prickly showcase for the actress, always intense even in her relaxed, lived-in way. While not as demanding or transformative as the likes of her work in Christine, Hall provides nuance and unexpected idiosyncrasies to Beth’s blunt behavior that invests us. As much as the film evades the easy answers, Hall is equally slippery, never quite allowing Beth to behave with the simplicity you might expect. It’s a performance that holds equally the responsibility of delivering absorbing fear as the genre demands and a more complicated character study on one’s relationship with death and the fallacies we discover.
Adeptly made with confidently measured storytelling turns and a dexterous score by Ben Lovett, The Night House is robust if minor key. It delivers the kind of glossy, brooding horror that is almost a comfort for its competent straightforwardness, with a few small quirks of its own that linger.