How the Director of 'The Night House' Conjured Up the Movie's Powerful Ending
David Bruckner talks us through the film's complicated web of mysteries, demons, and doubles.
When director David Bruckner first read the script for The Night House, a puzzle-box horror film about a grieving widow (Rebecca Hall) unraveling an architectural mystery within the beautiful lakeside home built by her dead husband, he was troubled by it. He joked it wouldn't leave him alone. In translating the story by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski to the screen, he hoped to preserve that initial ambiguous feeling of dread and curiosity that he felt after turning the last page and carry it all the way to the film's emotionally gutting conclusion, a through-the-looking-glass leap into a surreal world of doubles, demons, and blood moons. He didn't want to be too didactic, but he didn't want to be too obtuse, either.
"I would say for anyone who might be interested in a repeat viewing, all of your answers may in fact be there," Bruckner says on a video call from Belgrade, where he's currently working on a reboot of the horror classic Hellraiser. "The balancing act was doing it in a way that preserved enough narrative tension that you don't get bored or distracted and it doesn't become a tedious experience, so you're always dangling just enough of a carrot that keeps you glued and keeps you watching, so it can leave you in that troubled place."
Filled with optical illusions, ghostly sound cues, and startling plot twists, The Night House doesn't struggle to leave you unsettled. As a woman confronting the fact that the man she loved might not have been who he appeared to be, Hall gives one of the trickier performances you'll find in a contemporary horror film, toggling between spiky dark humor and righteous anger. Similar to how he dug into the "folk horror" genre with 2018's Netflix hike-gone-wrong thriller The Ritual, Bruckner embraces certain haunted house tropes while subverting others, using his camera to follow Hall's character Beth as her grasp on what's "real" begins to slip. In its final third, the movie attempts to tie its different narrative threads together and tell a larger story of self-discovery without losing sight of another important goal: scaring the hell out of an audience.
And, particularly in a few moments that make elegant use of negative space, The Night House delivers some big jump-scares, the type of moments where the viewer squeezes the arm of a chair or tosses popcorn in the air. When I saw the movie at Sundance in 2020, it stood out among the other horror films at the festival for its willingness to pound away at your nerves; over a year later, when viewed on a computer screen, it retained much of the same potency. It also features a truly sinister needle-drop of Richard and Linda Thompson's "Calvary Cross," used to great effect at multiple points in the film. The music, the meticulous sound editing, and the performances work together to cast an eerie spell.
Then there's the house itself. With its foreboding halls and large windows, the design of the home was essential to the movie's themes. Working with production designer Kathrin Eder and filmmaker friend Pat Horvath, a visual artist who he worked with on the horror anthology Southbound, Bruckner wanted to lean into architectural horror without relying on too much digital manipulation.
"We really built them," he said about the negative space effects, including a particularly terrifying one involving a column. "If you had wandered across our stage and looked at the right place at the right time in the right direction, you would witness something that's very close to what's on the screen."
But those moments are nothing without actors to sell the terror. ("Just in terms of craft, Rebeca can kinda do anything," says Bruckner when asked about working with Hall on the most emotionally demanding scenes.) That became especially important in the film's final stretch as Beth learns Owen was actually killing women who looked like her in order to stave off a demonic force attempting to make him kill his wife. As far as twists go, it's not exactly straightforward, a fact that Bruckner is very aware of. He's open to viewers having their own reads on what exactly happens in that final stretch.
"We did track four different reads on the material and I'd say two of them are pretty often understood," he says. "My favorite is maybe too abstract and maybe just because I'm so immersed in it it made sense to me. It's fun to think about how one necessarily orders the narrative. And to each their own. It's always a surprise when you're making a movie to see what people take from it."
The film's final image, a flickering "nothing" demon on the rowboat Beth has just been rescued from by her friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg), provides a sense of closure while still leaving certain questions unresolved. Has Beth truly freed herself from this force that's done so much damage to her life? Will it come back to haunt her? Is closure even possible or just a myth?
Bruckner wrestled with all those questions as he worked with the film's writers to find the exact final moment. "There were a few different endings at one point," he says. "At one point, we wanted to offer a coda that kinda told you how to feel and then at another point we pulled back from that and said, 'This is as far as we can take it.' At least for me, I feel like where the themes are tapped into, there's a question that's presented and beyond that I don't have much to offer. There's hope in the end and the struggle continues."