The Night House (2020)

Searchlight Pictures

Warning! There is absolutely no way I could write anything I’d be remotely happy with without ruining the experience of watching this film. Proceed at your own risk. 

On its surface, the David Bruckner-directed The Night House presents itself as a conventional play on a ghost story with a compelling mystery propelling the story along. However, there’s quite a bit more to it than meets the eye.  

At the very onset of the film, we are introduced to Beth (Rebecca Hall), whose husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) recently killed himself. She clearly has problems adjusting to the new reality of being on her own compounded by the trauma of losing her life partner in such a shocking, abrupt and violent way. Unable to cope, Beth drowns her grief in alcohol and one night she develops a feeling she is not alone in the house. She slowly convinces herself she is being haunted by the restless ghost of her departed husband. What is more, trying to understand why Owen took his own life, Beth finds out her partner – someone she thought she knew inside and out – kept secrets from her. As she continues to find photos of women who looked vaguely like her and even comes across a house in the forest that looks like a mirror image of her own home, Beth’s life goes into a tailspin towards phantasmagoria that will lead her to confront some uncomfortable truths.  

It’s hardly a secret that the premise to this film is anything but familiar. In fact, the narrative foundation to The Night House is archetypal enough to sustain a small handful of completely different paths and resolutions, some more conventional than others. However, where this story chooses to go is a bit different. While I am slightly hesitant towards referring to what this movie does as unconventional – and I will get to my reasons in a second – it is quite simply undeniable that how it does what it does is immensely compelling, engaging and effective. Quite frankly, this in-the-moment effectiveness and wholesale immersiveness (if that’s even a word) of the narrative is greatly helped by Rebecca Hall’s acting, who was clearly aware of the gravity of the situation she was put in and she shouldered this burden with great bravado and – dare I say – some effortlessness.   

It is remarkably easy for the viewer to inhabit Beth’s headspace and allow her to become a conduit into the frankly nightmarish world of unceasing uncertainty and pervasive unreliability of perspective; after all, we are hanging onto a human whose perception of the world around her is invariably impacted by external factors. And because all the numerous supernatural encounters take place when Beth is drunk – and an astute viewer will likely draw their own conclusions from this observation too – she cannot be trusted, which also contributes to the sense of unease and suspense, because Beth’s state adds to the unpredictability of what’s to come. After a while it becomes apparent that someone in this scenario is being gaslit; either Beth is being manipulated or you – the viewer – are. It turns out it’s both. 

This brings me to the ‘what’ of the film and the fact I am not exactly happy to call The Night House unconventional. In fact, a keen observer will be able to connect the dots quite early on and solve the puzzle well before it is laid out unshrouded by ambiguity. However, because the film in itself is viscerally compelling and immensely entertaining, the experience of watching the puzzle unravel is unlikely to be coloured by periodically muttering ‘I knew it all along’ under your nose. Even though the story is best described as an allegorical conversation about grief with a twist involving using depression as a personified demon haunting the character’s existence, the foreknowledge of how these elements of mystery all slot into place – and they all do! – does not detract from the overall experience. And that’s because the way certain elements of this allegorical interpretation are visualized are very original, haunting and in one case, technically jaw-dropping and eerily reminiscent of the magnificent special effects found in The Invisible Man

Simply put, The Night House is too entertaining to complain about. Between the eerie imagery involving elements of the house closing in on Beth, her interactions with the physical manifestation of her disturbed mental state and the more classical elements of the intrigue all of which might as well be figments of her imagination anyway, the entire film adds up to an incredibly effective rollercoaster ride that works both in the moment and after your adrenaline levels drop back to normal. It is a yet another example of an intellectually potent incarnation of horror that carries the viewer into the universe of the human mind to explore precarious mental states using physical metaphors, much like the acclaimed The Babadook and the more recent Relic that invites the viewer to re-evaluate everything within it, from the visual cues to elements of plot, after everything is loud and clear. And it all makes sense when filtered through the prism of the film’s central allegory. Granted, you might continue to wonder what was or was not real and which characters (if any) exist outside of Beth’s headspace, but the entirety of what makes the story in The Night House can be explained using the notion of someone succumbing to a crippling depression and grief as a key.  

Granted, I don’t have the capacity to testify to the film’s longevity, but at least as a singular – and better yet, theatrical – experience The Night House is extremely successful. In fact, it is effective enough to mask some of the more obvious narrative shorthand used to characterize Beth’s predicament, as well as infrequent bits of purely expository dialogue that would have drawn much more attention to itself if the viewer had enough time (and inclination) to notice them.  

What else can I say? The Night House is a surprisingly powerful piece of genre filmmaking that keeps the viewer engaged both intellectually and emotionally. As the story drags Beth head-first into the nightmarish landscape of her own inner turmoil, it is incredibly hard to remain unaffected and that’s partially why this movie is so damn good. However, I will go out on a limb here and admit that for all of its in media res potency, cerebral titillation and inventiveness in the realm of the filmmaking craft, the film’s fundamental familiarity based both on direct comparison to The Babadook or Relic as well as on the archetypal nature of the primary intrigue might render it somewhat forgettable… which might be a blessing in disguise because you might rediscover The Night House one day when it ends up added to the bottomless pit of the Netflix library and you will have some more visceral fun with it. Because it is fun. In fact, it kind of is the full package – smart and fun, which is all I’d ever want out of a horror movie anyway.  

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