Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures releases the film in theaters on Friday, August 20.
Once you have your first brush with Death, it can seem like it’s always calling to you from the far shore of the river Styx. After dodging a bullet or losing a loved one, you might hear Charon the ferryman whispering in your ear from time to time, beckoning you to cross over; to come back to the void; to embrace the eternal.
That’s just one of the fun thoughts that may be running through your mind during the first minutes of David Bruckner’s shudderingly intense and sadistically loud horror movie “The Night House,” a grief-stricken portrait of unraveling that begins with a small, empty dinghy bobbing against a dock on the shores of an idyllic New York lake. A path leads up to the beautiful home that Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) built for his wife a few years back — a house that has started to seem considerably bigger in the days since its architect took that boat out into the water one morning and shot himself in the head.
Now, Beth (Rebecca Hall) lives there alone, guzzling brandy in the middle of the night and rummaging around for some good reasons. The reason her husband took his own life. The reason why his spirit appears to her every night: First as a thud on the door, then as a naked phantom walking on the lake, and later in a series of ever more hostile and beguiling forms. At one point, a second, blood-red moon hangs in the sky next to the one we know; there’s no evidence to suggest it’s meant to be a vision of Pluto’s largest moon, but Charon only seems to draw closer as “The Night House” reveals the full meaning behind its title.
Suspicious viewers can probably solve that mystery sooner than Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski’s clever screenplay might like (a shame, as the clues they plant along the way — photos of another woman on Owen’s phone, an eerie suicide note, the creepiest blueprints in movie history — bait your imagination better than any horror film since “Hereditary.” But there are still plenty of ominous breadcrumbs to snack on as you wait for Beth to break down, catch up, and question her adamant belief that there’s no life after death. Owen never accepted that, and much of this movie just feels like watching someone gaslight his wife from beyond the grave (a clunky discussion about night terrors casts doubt over the idea that Beth’s visions are proof of ghosts).
But it’s certainly never boring, and not only because the film’s jump-scares are cruel and aggressive enough to cower you into submission. Bruckner, whose second feature after “The Ritual” follows memorable contributions to omnibus horror projects like “The Signal” and “V/H/S,” is a talented genre craftsman with a sick gift for endowing mundane spaces with sinister energy. Beth’s home is not a particularly expressive place — aside from some eerie bedroom windows, nothing about the house’s design betrays its dark foundations — but patient direction warps every corner with awful potential. And the film’s possessed atmosphere provides the architecture for some of the most brutal jolts in recent memory.
An early shock in broad daylight makes it clear that “The Night House” will never let you drop your guard, and Beth’s violent dreams condition you to stiffen your spine every time she falls asleep. All told, Bruckner is eager to play by his own rules, and giddy to break the ones you know. This is psychological horror without the bumper lanes, as the jump-scares in “The Night House” often arrive without any warning whatsoever (as opposed to the standard approach of dropping the music — and cueing the audience — in order for the BANG! to disturb a more perfect silence). Whereas most of this movie’s ilk stick to a mutually agreeable contract with their audience stipulating that all scares will adhere to a “quiet-loud-quiet” rhythm that gives viewers a sense of control over even the most shocking moments, “The Night House” makes that promise with its fingers crossed.
One sequence shrieks into action with a sustained jolt that seems to last for 15 seconds (and lingers in your ears for as many hours), and then pummels viewers with semi-automatic blasts until Beth’s trauma is traced into their eardrums. In theory, this is exactly the kind of formal subversion that standard-issue shlock is missing. In practice, it’s so hostile and domineering that you might find yourself pining for a more predictable approach. Great horror movies should feel unsafe, but this one just leaves you feeling beaten down.
In that light, the biggest shock of all is that the dramatic integrity of Beth’s character manages to survive this relentless sonic assault. If the scares are too piercing and self-insistent to feel as if they’re always motivated by the story, Hall’s committed performance prevents the jolts from ever feeling impersonal. She carries the film on her shoulders, complicating the genre’s usual approach to grief by playing Beth as someone who isn’t afraid of death, who somehow power-chugs all the fine hooch around her house until she’s got enough liquid courage to taunt whatever might be going bump in the night. So much of this lengthy movie consists of Beth foraging around in the dark and triggering loud sound effects, but Hall so actively negotiates her character’s intentions that it never feels like you’re just watching someone fumble around a house of mirrors.
Lost in the limbo between denial and acceptance, Beth wants to find a trace of her husband — she wants to be wrong. And even when the film’s mythology coheres into something underwhelmingly straightforward, Beth’s wary relationship with the great beyond is blunt enough to leave you looking over your shoulder. For as hard as it hits, “The Night House” doesn’t bruise enough to follow you home. But the movie’s soundscape will vibrate around the hollow of your bones for a long time to come; the next time you don’t stop for Death, you might not be able to shake the feeling that Death has kindly stopped for you.
“The Night House” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the Midnight section.
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