There’s a subset of horror into which The Night House, at least at first glance, squarely and tidily fits: slow-creep tales of attractively well-off people facing appalling, uncanny forces in properties so chic-ly designed and plushly appointed — preferably with some natural body of water lapping nearby — it almost makes the psychological torment worth enduring.
That “almost” deserves particular emphasis in the case of David Bruckner’s elegant, skin-prickling maybe-ghost story, whose protagonist enters the proceedings in worse shape than most, though it takes us some time to find out exactly why. We first encounter young high school teacher Beth (Rebecca Hall) enveloped in a hazy cloud of others’ sympathy, the kind where people donate casseroles in lieu of knowing what to say. She barely speaks for the film’s first quarter-hour, though Hall’s impressive-expressive arsenal of plungingly wounded stares and febrile tics gives us some sense of what’s up. Only in an impromptu parent-teacher meeting, when Beth snaps at an overbearing, unsuspecting helicopter mom, does the truth emerge. After 14 years of marriage, with no previous warning of anything amiss, Beth’s architect husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) recently blew his brains out while boating near their serenely modernist, timber-framed lake house in upstate New York.
That house, though. Perfectly appointed for the film’s purposes by production designer Kathrin Eder, it’s Architectural Digest tour material. But that’s not the reason why Beth, her impulses otherwise torn this way and that by grief and confusion, can’t leave its beautiful, deathly pall. Not the only one, anyway. The house was designed and built from the ground up by Adam himself, its every dimension and detail a reflection of his presence and personality: remaining in the space he made for her, it seems, is the closest thing to sharing space with him. And that’s before Beth begins to sense that his spirit is lingering there in a less abstract fashion. Muffled wisps of his voice ripple through rooms like a winter draft. Human-shaped shadows emerge from the walls and melt away again in a split second. The stereo develops a strange habit of playing his favored brand of lumbery alt-rock in the middle of the night. Beth is disturbed by these developments — of course she is. But is the chill they leave worse than the one left by his absence?
Thus do screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski lay the foundations for a conventionally well-built haunted-house chiller. But Bruckner (a V/H/S anthology alumnus who also gave us 2017’s tight little wilderness horror The Ritual) and Hall herself occasionally deviate from the plan, forming something a little more strange and sculptural. Beth’s investigation of her home’s paranormal activity follows certain expected beats: occult clues are uncovered, Owen’s previously invisible demons are hauled out, parallel spaces and double lives are glimmeringly teased. But for much of its running time, The Night House never seems overly preoccupied with solving the problem, even as a trail of real-world terror starts to line up with its supernatural whisperings.
It’s Beth who’s the more compelling mystery, as the film attempts to psychologically map her tangled emotions of sorrow, guilt, anger and odd exhilaration onto her increasingly fractured sense of reality. Maybe she’s more haunted by Owen than the house; maybe she prefers it that way, because it beats being alone. Hall is the actor you want for this assignment. As in her differently fevered performance as doomed news reporter Christine Chubbuck in Christine, the British star (who, between this and directing the extraordinary, upcoming drama Passing is having quite a year) has a default setting of keen, sturdy credibility that makes fear and self-disbelief all the more intrusive and alarming.
But even as the naturally stoic, skeptical Beth spirals, she never seems unhinged. We adhere loyally to her point of view, even as her reality seems to slide from its center. It helps that she also has that rarest of assets in the horror genre: a best friend, sharply played by Sarah Goldberg, who actually seems like a real, empathic person with a life outside of her scenes — another credible graph point for Beth’s escalating disarray. (Vondie Curtis-Hall, as Beth’s benevolent, semi-secretive neighbor, is sadly more of a stock presence.)
The Night House is hardly the first high-class horror film to play the “grief is the real bogeyman, actually” card. There’s space for it on the same shelf as Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, even if Bruckner plays to the gallery a little more than those filmmakers. He does knows his way around an A-grade, skeleton-rearranging jump scare, though rarely of the empty, anticlimactic variety. Nightmares spill out of other nightmares, and newly disruptive uncanny forces zag through the house even when they’re not the ones Beth fears. Nerves are only shredded, with no time for repair.
For a tantalizing stretch, it seems the movie may have even more modernist designs on its mind, as it nods away from horror altogether toward the more zen, unresolved hauntings of something like Olivier Assayas’ exquisite Personal Shopper (2016). It’s most affecting when Beth is merely trying to feel Owen, to physically feel him, through the mystic fog, her own skin eerily shifting and quivering in the attempt — not ghost-hunting but ghost-bonding. The script is a little too literal-minded to keep that up, however, with the filmmakers work toward a middle path between real and unreal, living and dead, that makes some sort of sense, and goes easier on our emotions in the process. It’s a movie that becomes more concerned with explanation over evocation. (The house, at least, still has our hearts.) Bruckner, Collins and Piotrowski are collaborating on a remake of Hellraiser next; given this extremely stylish evidence, they’ll do a smart job of it. But greatness awaits if they give in to the ghosts.