The isolated home by the seaside or out in the wilderness always seems like the perfect location for your average horror film or psychological thriller. It’s a place where many of us go to get away from our daily troubles as well as the hustle and bustle of city life as it can become too overbearing after a time. But once characters arrive at such a peaceful destination and have fallen in love with the beautiful vistas and ambient noises, all hell breaks loose. While they want to get away from everything, a brutal form of everything is coming after them. Whether it’s “The Evil Dead,” “Gerald’s Game,” “Honeymoon,” “Silent House” or other movies which are not coming to my mind right now, I have to wonder if getting away from everything is all its cracked up to be.
These thoughts went through my mind when as I watched “The Night House,” a psychological horror film which looks to have Rebecca Hall trapped in a beautiful seaside house which is haunted. But what unfolded before my eyes proved to be much more absorbing and thrilling than I expected as it deals with the things that go bump in the night, but it also deals with universal themes such as grief and coping with such an unexpected loss. While this movie is not exactly groundbreaking, it kept me within its grasp throughout and made me jump out of my seat a few times.
Hall plays Beth, a small-town schoolteacher who is now a widow. During a rather prickly parent-teacher meeting in which a mother is a bit miffed at Beth for giving her son a C in Speech, Beth tells her that her husband had died by suicide the other week. Suffice to say, this is not your typical parent-teacher meeting, but the parent did get their offspring a higher grade as a result. Of course, the parent walked out of it all embarrassed just like she should have.
Despite all the pain and anguish she is enduring, Beth continues to reside in the house her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) built for them during the early years of their marriage. Watching Beth’s home video footage of this house being built helps bring this story down to a more relatable level for me as friends of mine in Northern California shared videos of their own houses being constructed which had them all super excited. It is always more fun for some to create something than it is to destroy anything.
But when night falls, strange things begin happening around the house. The stereo system turns on by itself to play one of Beth and Owen’s favorite songs at an ear-splitting volume. Beth hears knocking on the walls but cannot find who is doing it, and with her getting drunk on a regular basis, it is getting harder to tell what is real and what is fantasy.
I sat in the darkened theater very much enthralled by “The Night House” as director David Bruckner, who previously the 2017 British horror film “The Ritual,” keeps us guessing as to what is really going on with Beth as she struggles to get past her husband’s sudden death even as she discovers things about him she was unaware of. To say he gives the proceedings a Hitchcockian vibe feels justified as the story holds onto its secret without ruining them long before the screen goes to black.
Bruckner also does a terrific job in making this house a terrifying place as he shows us how silence can be golden. As Beth moves around in her isolated home, there is little in the way of ambient sound, and it’s moments like these where I keep waiting with unbated anxiety for something loud to come out of nowhere. Yes, there are jump scares, but the ones Bruckner pulls off are highly effective as I cannot remember the last time I leaped out of my seat like this. Seriously, there may be cracks in the ceiling.
And then there’s Rebecca Hall who reminded me once again what an undervalued actress she is. Whether it’s “Iron Man 3,” “The Town” or the little seen “Christine,” she always proves to be a memorable presence as she fully invests herself in each character she plays. As Beth, she does some of her best work yet as runs the gamut of emotions while portraying a character going through the many stages of grief. Beth is sarcastic, biting and not always the nicest person to her friends, but Hall makes you empathize with her as this is her dealing with such a devastating and unforeseen death.
Hall also has nice support from her fellow actors here. Sarah Goldberg is a heartwarming presence as Beth’s best friend, Claire. While Beth may be pushing away, Claire still attempts to help her anyway she can even as she constantly apologizes for the things she said but didn’t mean to. Goldberg makes Claire feel painfully real as the character embodies the way many of us act towards a friend who has lost someone.
Vondie Curtis-Hall shows up as Mel, a local caretaker who also wants to help Beth in her time of need. The actor manages to find a subtle balance between being helpful and also vulnerable as Mel appears to be more knowledgeable about Owen than Beth initially realizes. Not all actors are successful in pulling this off, so it is noteworthy.
Stacy Martin, best known for her work in Lars Von Trier “Nymphomaniac,” has some choice scenes as Madelyne, a woman who may know more about Owen than Beth is comfortable with. It’s interesting to watch Madelyne as she struggles to befriend Beth even when Beth looks like she wants to jump across the table and strangle her. Martin does a great job in handling the awkwardness of her situation even as she looks to be risking physical and emotional harm.
I was surprised to see how deeply I was taken into “The Night House” as it looked, on the outside anyway, to be an average horror or thriller which may be fun but not leave much of an aftertaste. This film, however, really got under my skin though thanks to the performances and Bruckner’s direction which is even further enhanced by the beautiful cinematography by Elisha Christian and the ominous film score composed by Ben Lovett. But at the center of it all is Rebecca Hall who fully involves us in her character’s frightening path which looks to have no happy end. From start to finish, she is a marvel.
Seriously, I came out “The Night House” shaking. I watched it in sheer terror as I feared for the secrets Beth would end up discovering, and I also was terrified this movie would have some shaggy dog ending which would just pull the rug right out from under us in a terrible way. Remember the wannabe “Sixth Sense” ending that Nicholas Sparks adaptation “Safe Haven” had? Oh lord! Well, this one does not have that kind of an ending even though part of me was a bit perplexed by it.
In the end, “The Night House” is really meant to be an exploration of grief and how one person can go through its brutal stages It’s great to see a horror thriller pull this off in an emotional and thoughtful way, and it was all accomplished with little, if any, blood and gore. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but anyway.
* * * ½ out of * * * *