Throughout her career, Rebecca Hall has always tended to deliver her best performances when she’s cast as a character who appears to be an introverted shrinking violet from the outside, but reveals serious mental fortitude and inner strength the more she sinks her teeth into the role. It’s yielded fantastic turns in projects as diverse as Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Ben Affleck’s The Town, psychological thriller The Gift and biopic Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the actress delivers the best work of her career in The Night House.
Director David Bruckner’s atmospheric horror, which comes to theaters this Friday, is an often moving exploration of grief as viewed through the lens of a supernatural mystery, but the material is massively elevated by Hall’s knockout central performance, and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say the entire movie may have come off the rails in the third act were it not for The Night House‘s powerhouse lead.
The story opens with Hall’s Beth dealing with the unexpected suicide of her husband, who shot himself in the head outside their lakeside home with the gun she didn’t even know that he owned. Struggling to put on a brave face in public, Beth’s facade begins to crack when she starts experiencing haunting dreams and visions so vivid she’s adamant they’re real, waking up in various rooms of her home with no idea how she got there. After deciding to dig into her late spouse’s past, a series of shocking revelations and answers to questions she’d never thought to ask start making themselves clear.
It would be far too easy for The Night House to make Beth the simple ‘grieving widow haunted from beyond the grave’ archetype we’ve seen countless times before in the horror genre, but Hall isn’t having any of it. It’s an emotionally complex and very heavy part to tackle, but an early scene where high school teacher Beth deals with a disgruntled parent while working through the grieving process lets you know in no uncertain terms that she’s every bit as ferocious and determined as she is stricken by sadness, and it’s a mighty accomplishment that you’re completely invested and along for the ride based on nothing more than the way Hall ropes you into her plight.
The script by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski is an interesting one, in that it sets The Night House up to be an old-fashioned chamber piece loaded with Gothic trappings and all the other trimmings audiences have come to expect from a film where a woman living in isolation discovers that she might not be alone after all. However, the writers have also crafted an interesting and unique mythology in regards to the who, what, when, where and why of Beth’s paranormal experiences, peeling back one small layer at a time instead of favoring exposition dumps or playing all of their cards too early.
Those mystery elements also created an added layer of suspense, which only enhances an aesthetic that’s already got a lurching sense of unease and dread permeating every frame, not to mention a couple of jump scares that are guaranteed to have audiences throwing their popcorn all over the place. Beth thinks that Evan Jonigkeit’s Owen may have been living a secret double life after she discovers his phone and computer are full of pictures of women who look eerily like her, and while that’s true to a certain extent, The Night House throws a couple of serious narrative curveballs to make sure that we’re forced to keep guessing how things are going to play out once text messages from the dead, ghostly apparitions, an occult bookstore and a makeshift cabin in the woods Beth’s kindly old neighbor tries to keep her away from are all introduced in succession without giving the game away.
Bruckner has been slowly working his way up the horror ranks for a while now, directing The Night House on either side of Netflix’s The Ritual and the Hellraiser reboot, and you can see his growth as a filmmaker on full display. He knows when to hold a long shot, when to cut away, and how to maximize both the foreground and the background, to the extent you’ll be finding your eyes scanning every frame for things that may or may not be hiding in the shadows.
If there’s one major criticism to be leveled at The Night House, then it’s the final act as mentioned earlier. While it does nothing to stop Hall’s one-woman tour de force by simply asking her to match her emotional gymnastics with physical ones, the conclusion feels half-heartedly cobbled together and rushed, leaving what should have been the grand finale feeling a little undercooked. The ending isn’t reflective of the intriguing world-building that comes beforehand, but The Night House is definitely worth checking out on the strength of the lead performance alone.