Rebecca Hall in The Night House.
Photo: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
The Night House
WHERE TO WATCH:
Now showing in cinemas
WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
Beth (Rebecca Hall) tries to come to terms with the sudden and unexpected suicide of her husband, Owen (Evan Jonigkeit), when she starts having increasingly vivid dreams that lead her to question everything she thought she knew about her husband… and his death.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
There’s always been something of a debate between horror aficionados on whether horror is most effective when the monster is hidden from sight or when it takes centre stage on-screen. Proponents of body horror, in particular, no doubt favour the latter, but for many horror fans, including myself, the suggestion of the supernatural or otherworldly almost always works better than anything more explicit. Certainly, there’s something particularly powerful about horror that doesn’t draw attention to the monster or ghost lurking in the corners but allows the viewer to slowly register what they’re seeing. Modern horror maestros Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House) and Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) are particularly good at this.
On the flip side, many a horror story has been undone by jump scares that abruptly throws the same monsters in the audience’s face, usually accompanied by an unsubtle musical queue, to the effect of cheap jumps rather than any sort of building dread or unnerving creepiness. Jump scares can be effective, but more often than not tend to be, at best, monotonous, at worst, genuinely annoying. And then there’s the biggest danger that comes with revealing the monster: it frequently ruins the sense of mystery, tension and uncertainty that came before. It’s why so many horror stories are, if not outright ruined by their final acts, at least feel so very anticlimactic.
This is a problem that afflicts even horror maestros like Stephen King and Peter Straub – and, sadly, it left me underwhelmed by The Night House, despite being gripped by it for so much of its runtime. The first two-thirds to three-quarters of the film does occasionally descend into cheap and ineffective jump scares, but for the most part, it’s a rewarding slow-burner that allows its central mystery to unfold at just the right pace, while punctuating it with some impressively scary dream sequences (or are they?) that point towards something far more sinister going on than just a woman uncovering her husband’s past dalliances and indiscretions.
Best of all, there is a nice level of ambiguity that casts a shadow of doubt over what seems to be some supernatural (and not always supernatural) goings-on. Indeed, though the finale does descend into c-grade horror silliness, there’s just enough doubt about whether we’re actually seeing what we think we’re seeing or whether it’s all just something happening in the mind of our protagonist, broken as she is by loneliness, isolation, and grief over the violent and inexplicable death of her husband, to give it a bit more weight than it otherwise would have. Frankly, though it’s very, very unlikely that this is the case, the finale works much, much better as a psychological allegory than the run-of-the-mill supernatural nonsense it appears to be.
And the reason I’m almost willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt is partly because writers, Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, and director, David Bruckner, do approach so much of the film with a sensitivity and intelligence that speaks to a smarter and more human story than the final act delivers, but because Rebecca Hall is so very, very good as Beth: a horror protagonist that is never – not even in the film’s most full-on moments of horror – some generic plucky scream queen.
In fact, Beth comes across as quite prickly at times, suffering no fools gladly and even witheringly takes down a friend or two. She is also resourceful, vulnerable, and increasingly hurt, confused, and angry as she unravels each secret, while also selling a real sense of abject terror when confronted with the impossible. She’s a fully rounded person, in other words, who goes through a lot in 100 or so minutes, and Hall navigates every character beat with the sort of precision and raw emotion that, had this been another sort of film, she would be racking up all the acting award nominations.
Clearly, she isn’t someone who thinks she’s above genre films, as she throws in every bit as much conviction and passion into what would otherwise be just an above-average horror film as she would for any prestige, awards-courting drama. She is front and centre in every single scene in the film and gives even the more preposterous moments a grounded humanity. The film itself isn’t quite up to her, but she does her best to make it seem like it is, elevating a pretty good but flawed horror flick into something really worth watching.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:
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