Hey, there’s a movie called The Night House playing at local movie theaters. It’s a psychological horror film, and it’s pretty good, with a solid Rebecca Hall in the central role—and you probably have no idea it exists.
This is one of those films that was released with little fanfare during these crazy moviegoing times. I sat in a completely empty theater as I watched this, during a Sunday matinee. Much of the movie deals with the central character’s isolation in a lonely house, so the quiet of the theater heightened that part of the viewing experience. It made it creepier.
It also reminded me that moviegoing levels are far from normal, and probably won’t be anywhere near normal for some time.
Hall plays Beth, a recently widowed schoolteacher who’s living in a lonely lake house somewhere in upstate New York. Owen (Evan Jonigkeit), her architect husband, recently killed himself with a handgun in a rowboat on the lake. That rowboat remains ominously tied to the dock—and it starts to play a part in what could either be Beth’s hallucinations from a lack of sleep and heavy drinking, or something far more troubling: As she suffers through her grief, it appears to her that Owen is haunting the house he built.
After rummaging through some of his workbooks and his phone, Beth starts to suspect Owen had a double life. That thought goes to such an extreme that she finds a “mirror house” in the woods, also allegedly designed by Owen, containing strange demonic totems—and horrifically dark possibilities.
Is it all in Beth’s grief-stricken, depressed head? Or is there perhaps a supernatural element, derived from a near-death experience Beth had years before, that Owen was secretly fighting?
The beauty of movies like The Night House, nicely directed by David Bruckner (The Ritual), is that whatever interpretation you choose, it works. There are mirrored explanations for what happens in this movie—to such an extent that you could watch it twice, and each viewing could have a completely different impact, both equally powerful.
It works as a haunted-house movie, with Bruckner creating a chilling atmosphere via camerawork, lighting and sound; he relies less upon jump scares and more on expertly timed “ghostly moments.” Old tropes like bloody footprints, writing on mirrors and shadowy figures feel fresh in this director’s hands. Bruckner is more interested in making people feel unsettled and anxious than scaring the shit out of them.
It also works if you take the position that Beth’s suspicions about ghosts and her husband’s double life are in her head. She’s struggled with depression for most of her life, and her trauma (combined with the aforementioned alcohol and lack of sleep) could be causing horrible hallucinations and waking nightmares. She is a perfect example of an unreliable narrator.
Hall delivers her best screen work since she played a 1970s TV reporter in the underrated 2017 film Christine, another film that dealt with suicide. She goes through the emotional wringer in this one, and she offers an impressive display of her underrated range. The most notable supporting performance comes from the great Sarah Goldberg (so good in TV’s Barry) as Beth’s best friend, a person who is suffering as much as her friend is. Goldberg delivers some of the year’s best “eye acting” here.
The Night House lingers after exiting the theater. Its mysteries and miseries stick in the craw, and Hall’s work resonates. It’s not a movie that has all of the answers—so you’ll probably find yourself calling friends to discuss possibilities and theories about its meaning, sort of like the conversations sparked by a David Lynch film.
Of course, your friends will not have seen the movie yet, because nobody is taking themselves to the theater for a mildly marketed horror film with no A-list stars. So … wait patiently until your pals watch it on streaming in a few months, and let the speculations begin.