'The Night House' Is the First Chilling Horror Surprise of the Year
Despite opening with an oddly serene image of a rowboat floating in a lake, The Night House is one of the loudest horror movies I've ever seen. The haunted house thriller, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, isn't as unrelentingly noisy as 2017's It or its equally in-the-red sequel, but it makes every creak count. Some of the sounds in the film are subtle, like a tray of food given to a grieving widow sliding into a trash can, while others, like a gunshot ringing through the air or a "Calvary Cross" by Richard & Linda Thompson blasting on a stereo, are thunderous.
In The Night House, Rebecca Hall stars as Beth, a schoolteacher in upstate New York who has plenty of reasons to feel uneasy. Her husband of 14 years Owen (Even Jonigkeit) recently committed suicide, leaving her alone in a spacious, sleek home he designed himself. The house was supposed to be their peaceful waterfront sanctuary; now, in the aftermath of his death, it's become a puzzle-box for Beth to toy with. She sorts through his files, drinks bottles of wine, and starts to have strange dreams that often end with her waking up on the floor.
After discovering some suspicious photos of women who look eerily similar to her, Beth begins to suspect Owen was living a double-life. He never displayed signs of depression, but perhaps she never really knew him in the first place. Though her best friend from work (Barry's Sarah Goldberg) and her considerate neighbor (Vondie Curtis Hall) encourage her to let Owen's death be, Beth continues to hunt for clues. Some of Owen's drawings indicate he was working on another house, like a doppelganger to their home. She's driven by both a need to know the truth and an anger at this man she loved for so long.
Director David Bruckner, who previously directed Netflix's The Ritual and helmed segments in horror anthologies like Southbound and V/H/S, knows how to build tension and create an atmosphere of discomfort. The camera moves elegantly throughout the carefully designed house, conjuring terror in the shadows and the many reflective glass surfaces. More importantly, he has a knack for locating the small human character moments that can make a horror film like this tick amidst its loudness.
The opening stretch of the movie, which includes a darkly funny scene of Beth confronting the helicopter-parent of one of her students and a prickly trip to the pub with Beth's prying co-workers, is so sharp that the middle section ends up frustrating in comparison. Hall, a commanding screen presence in movies like the underrated thriller The Gift and the grim newscaster biopic Christine, doesn't appear to suffer fools gladly. She gives Beth a wryness that elevates the film. At the same time, her cunning intelligence and sense of irony makes it harder to buy some of the increasingly convoluted twists and repetitive detours that the script throws her way.
Still, Bruckner and cinematographer Elisha Christian know how to unleash hell. The final stretch of the film may not reach the ghoulish heights of Ari Aster's Sundance hit Hereditary or the occult strangeness of Bruckner's own ending to The Ritual, but it's packed with frightening images, like a double blood moon reflecting on a lake, and, of course, that killer sound mix. It wasn't terribly surprising when news broke this week that Searchlight was closing on a $12 million deal to distribute the film. Unlike some of the genre fare that debuts at Sundance, which feels designed and destined for home viewing on a streaming service, The Night House deserves to be seen in a theater. Hopefully one with the volume turned way, way up.
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