Horror movies don’t always feature jump scares — while some rely on them completely — but some of the best the genre has to offer manage a mix of sudden scares and unrelenting atmosphere. The latest from the director of The Ritual (2017) has a few too many issues to land among the best, but it delivers mightily with jumps that terrify and atmosphere that chills to the bone.
Grief is a real asshole, and as Beth (Rebecca Hall) returns home from her husband’s funeral to an empty, lake-side house — one he built for her years before rowing out onto the water and blowing his own brains out — she sees that grief manifest as sadness, anger, and confusion. She can’t comprehend why Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) would have killed himself, but her list of questions is about to grow in dark and unexpected directions. A picture of another woman, one who vaguely resembles Beth, is on his phone. Owen’s house plans include strange symbols, references, and copies in reverse. And she might not be all that alone in the house after all.
The Night House‘s core setup is familiar enough as women stuck in creepily haunted houses is a horror trope unto itself — hell, Hall has gone down this road previously with 2011’s The Awakening — but director David Bruckner has more than a few tricks up his sleeve to help the film stand out from the crowd. Case in point are the aforementioned scares accomplished through eerie visuals and some terrifically creepy sound design (including a moving score by Ben Lovett), but key to all of it working is a truly affecting performance from Hall as the woman left alone to face the darkness.
The home is a gorgeous piece of modern architecture, itself a change of pace from the usually old and dusty dwelling, with large windows looking out onto the surrounding woods and enticing waters of the lake. The location feels both safe and isolated, and while the introduction of a concerned neighbor (Vondie Curtis-Hall) suggests the latter isn’t quite the concern it’s a different world when night falls. Beth’s evenings are filled with wine, worry, and visions that may or may not be real. Music plays of its own accord, lights come on and off, and she begins seeing people who aren’t there — unless they are? Her dead husband’s voice, given supernatural modulation, calls to her, and the mix of fear and relief on her face is only half met by the look on our own. Bruckner plays the eeriness to its hilt as the voice reverberates, shadows move, and music stingers knock butts out of seats. These stings are loud, but they’re also effective as hell.
The scares are alone reason enough to see The Night House, but Hall’s performance is another. She’s an eternal talent delivering pitch perfect performances across genres, and that continues here as her situation leaves viewers immediately in her corner and fearful of what’s next. It’s not just fear she’s selling as its grief that sits at the center of Beth and the film itself — grief over deaths that were and those that weren’t, as it turns out. Her loss and curiosity collide, and it’s a journey we’re happy and scared to be on with her.
The supporting cast is small, but the addition of Curtis-Hall and Sarah Goldberg as Beth’s best friend create expectations for seemingly savvy genre fans as to their characters. The script, by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, plays subtly with conventions with those two as well as with the woman — and women — that Beth finds pictures of on Owen’s laptop. It zigs when we expect a zag, and it’s at its strongest in the first two acts as various elements come into play and clues are discovered pointing in directions that may not quite be accurate. Unfortunately, though, that’s where the film’s trouble starts too.
There are so many pieces laid out for Beth and for viewers that an impression forms of something far bigger and more detailed than what we’re eventually given. The details and intricacies suggest something more involved and complex, and viewers are left wishing that we’d either gotten more so as to leave crucial questions answered — or less so as not to find ourselves asking them at all. This issue runs up through an ending that lands emotionally while leaving narrative concerns flapping in the breeze.
Depending on your particular interests and needs when it comes to horror films, The Night House might just be a resounding success. It’s terrifically scary and never dull, both things that far too many horror movies can’t claim, and as a crowd experience in particular it delivers in ways guaranteed to leave audiences jumping and screaming in their seats. Those hoping for a strong foundation to this particular haunted house will be left cold, though.