I know Thanksgiving isn’t for a couple more months but let’s go ahead and get ourselves in the festive spirit early and here, on this swarthy side of an August afternoon, take a moment to say thank you, thank you, thank you, for the blessing that is the great and powerful Rebecca Hall. One of our finest working actors Hall has managed to sell everything from the true-story suicidal impulses of a monotone television news anchor to the big-eyed scientific shock-and-awe of a giant ape devotee with equal and astonishing aplomb (and I might mention in a couple of months time you’ll find out she’s just as good a writer and director with her ace debut in those arenas called Passing).
But first, a horror movie! And a very good very fine horror movie at that, as if she hasn’t already done enough for us—after suffering through several horror flops this summer, I was particularly pleased to walk in one side of The Night House and out the other entirely shaken and stirred somewhere deep within myself. This is the latest from The Signal and The Ritual director David Bruckner, and it stars Hall as Beth, a woman we meet in mourning immediately following the suicide of her gorgeous and perfect husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit, all of those things). Seems as gorgeous and perfect as Owen might have seemed, doing construction work in that sleeveless tee with a beard and a smile for the ages, well there was something sinister behind those dreamy eyes, whispering in those dreamy ears … something that convinced him to jump in a rowboat on the lake behind their house, to paddle out to its center, and to shoot himself shockingly and emphatically dead.
And thing is, Beth already knew from sinister things whispering in her ear—she’s been fighting serious depression since her teen years when she very nearly died in a car accident and woke up on the other side with the inescapable conviction that nothing means anything, which is to say that everything means nothing. When the big beautiful ball of light called Owen came into her life she thought she’d beat those demons off, thought he was all the man she’d need. Owen, an architect on top of being kind and a perfect physical specimen, had designed them their dream house, and they were happy there. Or were they? In the grand tradition of every Lifetime Movie ever, what horror lay inside an unknowable husband’s cell phone folders? Beth’s about to find out!
The Night House might lull us in with that general Lifetime malaise of marital unease but it’s got many more tricks up its stylish sleeves than the latest Jennie Garth Joint ever did, starting and ending with Hall’s ever sharp ever nuanced work playing a woman rightly unraveling with every thread she yanks. Speaking from experience, if there’s one thing a depressed person fears more than any other it’s not self-involved but rather the exact opposite—it’s the thought that your depression might be infectious. That the black cloud of your unhappiness might bloom outward, influencing and altering the people you love in ways they might never recover from. Now that, that is frightening, gut-deep kinda stuff.
As Beth’s investigation into the man she thought she knew digs ever onward you can feel the tension of that cord tightening around her, and Hall makes us understand that no matter what horrors she uncovers, she can’t stop until she fulfills the self-fulfilling prophecy that she, not he, is to blame for the whole of it. That’s a damn tragic arc for a horror film to explore in-depth and The Night House, buoyed by Hall’s furious perfection, goes all in—it’s as micro an exploration of grief as The Babadook was (a film I thought of at several points here), using the trappings of its genre to get at the incorporeal forms of anguish and agony we all carry within ourselves.
But Bruckner doesn’t side-step the spooky stuff—borrowing visually from the empty-spaced surrealism of Escher and Magritte and Hopper (oh my) the film’s a phantasmagoria of the void screaming back; it’s not just that Hall’s oft tasked with speaking to disconnected voices coming from what may or may not be there, but it’s the half-turned away faces, the unsettling doubles and doppelgangers, the smoke-based lay-out of the couple’s “dream house” that never seems to settle into one firm form. And that’s before we even find out the unsettling secrets behind what the film’s title means. Beth’s doggedly self-destructive detective work will grant us hints towards all sorts of outside occult-tinged reasons for the big happenings of What’s Happening—an eerie sculpture of a woman’s body impaled on multiple poles sure leaves a mark—but Bruckner’s smart enough to keep the physical stuff half meta. The Night House, like its subjects, exists impossibly in two spaces at once, and our uneasiness blossoms from our inability to distinguish which side of the mirror we’re on, even once it’s over.
Image sources (in order of posting): Searchlight,