“The Night House,” a 2020 break-out success at Sundance that Searchlight Pictures bought for $12 million, is playing now at 2,150 theaters for a 45-day run, which is almost over. So far, it has garnered about $8 million worldwide. The studio showed its faith in the film by not releasing it to streaming first and Director David Bruckner admitted in an interview that it could have been a studio film but wasn’t. He’s glad it wasn’t overly supervised by a studio, but became the independent movie success it is. “The Night House” has given me a new name to add to my list of “favorite directors.”
David Bruckner, the 44-year-old director of “The Ritual” and the accident sequence of the “Southbound” film anthology, filmed this completely frightening psychological horror thriller in 24 days in Utica, New York. I realized that I had seen “The Ritual” when I went back to try to find any previous films by Bruckner.
The film starts with a shot of a small rowboat bobbing dockside outside a modernistic lake house. The woman going up the steps of the house-under-construction has obviously just lost a family member, as her female companion is telling her to call her any time in Detroit, if she feels the need. Rebecca Hall (who also executive produced) as Beth Parchin is a no-nonsense teacher. After her friend leaves, she immediately dumps the hot dish (lasagna?) that her well-meaning friend has given her and breaks out the booze.
The film then picks up the story of life after loss, because Beth’s husband, Owen, got in the rowboat, rowed out into the lake outside the modernistic house he is building, and shot himself in the head. It is ironic that it was always Beth, the wife, who was the depressive one with dark dreams, not Owen, because Owen is the one who has succumbed. Why?
We see Beth trying to cope at work during a meeting with a parent who seems to want to complain about her son’s grade. In an interview, Rebecca Hall says it was this scene that sold her on the script, as Beth shows all the earmarks of a woman who is struggling to hold it all together while under terrific stress. All of the acting Ms. Hall does is convincing, but the directorial decisions that Director David Bruckner has made in order to scare us all are brilliant.
In an interview of his own, Bruckner described how the script for “The Night House” had been “laying around for a couple of years” when he was contacted and, he said, “Here’s this crazy movie that nobody will make. Rebecca Hall read it and understood it and we were off.” Noting that he is the kind of director who works fast and decides in a split second (“I’m definitely a filmmaker who likes to lean into a space.”), Bruckner says, “You really have to go with your gut.”
Lead Rebecca Hall, who is onscreen in nearly every scene and has some difficult situations she creates that involve working opposite a mysterious spirit that isn’t really there, said, of Bruckner, “I loved working with David and think he’s brilliant and well on his way to owning the genre.” The “genre” is horror, and Bruckner has been tapped to re-create “Hellraiser.” He said, to “Shockya” magazine that “It’s a dream come true to a horror person like myself.”
The script for “The Night House” was written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski. The psychology of the script intrigued both Bruckner and Hall. It asks a question about whether we can ever really “know” the people closest to us. We spend a large part of the film feeling sorry for the recently widowed Beth and thinking that her husband, Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) is a good guy. Or was he? He may have been a good guy in the same way that Ted Bundy seemed like a good guy to his live-in girlfriend at the time .
Bruckner called the film “a complex drama” and a character piece. Mirror logic is a recurring motif in the film. The expert use of sound to create terror is handled beautifully. The film was one of the most original approaches to a horror film in some time.
I asked my husband what part or parts scared him the most in the movie. He singled out the spot when a stereo goes off in the dead of night, seemingly for no reason, at maximum volume. For me, it was the sight of several young girls running to a cliff and jumping off. One of the ghost-like figures seems to walk almost through Hall’s character. It happens so quickly that I physically recoiled. But it’s not a gory slasher film, which was welcome, to me.
When Beth’s husband commits suicide, he leaves behind a note that reads: “You were right. There is nothing. Nothing’s after you. You’re safe now.” I immediately wondered if the term “nothing” could be capitalized and represent an evil entity, Nothing. This was long before the film got into the idea of CAERDROIA, which are Welsh turf mazes, or the Louvre doll, which appears to be a metal doll that has had a number of metal rods driven through it in a voodoo “curse” motif. (The original doll is in the Louvre, hence its name).
The premise: if you do things backwards, it will throw off evil spirits. When Beth discovers that her husband was building an exact replica of their new house on the other side of the lake, things take a nasty turn. We suspect that Vondie Curtiss Hall as Mel is somehow involved. Or is he?
Don’t read further if you don’t want to know some important plot points.
After I realized that the various pictures of women who resembled Beth were simply “stand-ins” for Beth, blameless victims whom Owen dispatched in an attempt to lure the evil spirit away from her by using doppelgangers, I wondered why Beth never mentions so much as one word of bodies buried in the basement of the new “backwards” lake house. There are several scenes after her discovery where Beth could have told someone about her grim discovery, but she says nothing, and we are not given a reason for her silence. Is she trying to protect everyone’s image of Owen as “a good guy?” There is no way of telling. I found this to be one of the biggest flaws in the admittedly out-there script. Why? Why wouldn’t a responsible person like Beth, a teacher, not inform the authorities of such a horrible discovery?
Rebecca Hall admitted that she felt that some of her later scenes in a bathroom (mirrors, again) battling the spirit that is trying to lure her back to the underworld may have been a bit wonky. She was right, but I give her high marks for giving it her all.
The quick cuts where we realize, after the fact, that what we have just seen may have all been a dream were expertly handled. Kudos to the director and the music person (Ben Lovett), the cinematographer (Elisa Christain), and the film editor (David Marks). The production design and set and art directors also did a great job in making the night house feel as though Beth is probably never really quite comfortable in it, as it had a decidedly masculine feel. [I kept recommending grabbing her keys and splitting for any other port in a storm, once the weird sounds began, but it would have been a much shorter film if Beth had never stood her ground and battled her demons.]
As we learn during the set up for the plot, Beth already survived a horrible car crash in her youth and was clinically dead for four minutes. That is the set-up for much of what happens and also serves as a bit of a motive for all that is visited upon her.
It’s not as ambitious as “Us” was with its complex backstory, but there are so many things that go bump in the night in this one to truly frighten that it is a movie I’d recommend to anyone who likes psychological thrillers with original themes and lots of horror that isn’t “Saw”-like in emphasizing violence or gore.