MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Psychological Horror/Stars: Rebecca Hall, Sarah Goldberg, Stacy Martin, Evan Jonigkeit, Vondie Curtis-Hall/Runtime: 110 minutes
As unnerving as it might be, I think it best to start this review by asking you, the reader a question: what is it that you think happens to us as people when we pass away? Truthfully I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be surprised if each of you came to me with a different response since every culture, religion, and the like all have distinct possible answers to this question, but no matter what you answer with I still believe that the truth will always constantly elude us since anyone who could tell us for sure is not exactly, barring resurrection, able to tell us for sure. It also is what results in seeing death, very much in the same vein as everything else in the world that has a big question mark attached to it, has now become incredibly quite terrifying. This makes sense since everyone will eventually get the opportunity to learn the answer, but I still think each and every person is still consistently afraid about this no matter if it’s just being buried in the ground and that’s that, your soul being born into a new body, or your soul going to a place of either eternal bliss or eternal torture to name but a few examples. Incidentally, it’s also worth pointing out that this existential crisis is an integral component to quite a few narratives in the world of horror (heck this is practically one of the roots of every stories I’ve ever read or seen that deal with ghosts). Yet even with how familiar I am in being aware of that fact, I do think it is absolutely delightful whenever a slice of cinematic pie comes out into the world that manages to find a novel wrinkle on the top and in the process give us something novel and unique. The reason I bring this up is because this is exactly what the new slice of cinematic pie The Night House from film helmer David Bruckner manages to achieve. Indeed coming equipped with a downright riveting performance from Rebecca Hall, absolutely fantastic work from the production design and cinematography departments, and a downright arresting narrative with an ending that is haunting in the best way possible, this is one slice of cinematic pie that has just as much to say about both the grieving process and the idea of death and is really just as gripping on an intellectual level as it is on just a pure enjoyment of horror cinema level.
The plot is as follows: Based on a novel idea by a pair of screenwriters named Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, The Night House gets underway as we as movie goers are introduced to a woman by the name of Beth who is in the midst of reeling and trying her best to cope in the way from a horrific and heartwrenching tragedy which takes the shape and form of the fact that her spouse, a guy by the name of Owen, has just with no prior warning decided to take his own life. Yet even with that hanging over her head, we see that our incredibly stoic heroine publicly tries to keep living her life to the best of her ability including still going to work every day as well as showcasing a significant degree of honesty with her co-workers. Yet it is in her private life where we see her beyond the façade she puts up for the world to see as we see that Beth is living on her own in the lake house that Owen had constructed for the pair, and she is unable to get past her pain and the memories so she spends her nights drinking as a form of medicating/therapy. It isn’t long however before we see that our intrepid heroine’s palpable degree of grief enters into a strange union with a degree of intense curiosity when, surprise surprise, she begins to have some odd things occur in the house at nighttime. Things that take the form of, as she is trying to get to sleep, the radio in the living room decides to turn on and she starts getting weird messages on her phone which, despite making me wonder if standard data rates still apply, have our heroine wondering if Owen’s ghost is watching over her from beyond the grave. Suffice it to say that the events also have the effect of, despite her friend kindly yet firmly trying to talk her out of it, inspiring her to begin going through her late husband’s stuff to try and see if there is any answers that can be found there for why this is going on yet what she finds only manages to unnerve her even more than she already was. Especially when taking into account the fact that not only did it seem dear ol’ hubby had some rather odd pastimes and was working on a mystery home across the lake before he passed away.
Now I think I will stop with the plot synopsis right there since what I have told you is pretty much a basic plot summary for this slice of cinematic pie which is something that, if you haven’t guessed yet, is most assuredly on purpose. I say that because this is one slice of cinematic pie that I feel you should see without either knowing absolutely anything about a lot of the “big moments” or having any sort of expectations about what to expect from this slice of cinematic pie whatsoever. What I will say is that it takes about 15-20 minutes in for this slice of cinematic pie to give the audience its first gut punch and from that point on we learn that this is only to be the first of quite a few that are given to us from a narrative that goes to some fairly dark places. Indeed whilst I will not comment one way or another on just how or even if this slice of cinematic pie ties into the spooky and otherworldly, I will say that there is a fantastic and surprisingly bleak creative touch to how it does things that is incredibly unnerving and will stay with you long after the credits have rolled and you are on your way home. Indeed whilst this slice of cinematic pie is one that is constructed on a fairly simplistic puzzler that results in our intrepid heroine uncovering a side to who her husband was that she had no idea of, but it is also carried out with a wonderful degree of energy that is assisted by an incredibly multilayered narrative. Yes there are quite a few points throughout where you could assume that this slice of cinematic pie has finally uncovered the answers at the heart of its enigmatic narrative, but it is incredible how it makes the choice to use those answers as a leaping off point of sorts in order to immerse the audience further into concepts that are incredibly complicated and fascinating than you might think. Of course, lest you think this is one slice of cinematic pie that just drops answers on you with no prior hints that this is where the movie is going, I am thankful to say that this slice of cinematic pie does give out hints throughout that kinda nod in certain directions and looking back I can assure you it is those components which will make this the kind of movie that will be just as riveting to watch a 2nd or 4th time as much as it is the first time.
Of course, it should be said that the narrative in this is only half the answer on how to truly and potently send a chill down your audience’s spine and in that regard the helmsmanship and style on display by David Bruckner is more than up to the task of filling in the rest of the equation. Indeed there is a continuous spine tingling vibe in this film conjured up courtesy of the effort by the cinematography department in highlighting how empty our heroine’s house really is to the point that the emptiness actually feels almost downright perilous here. Indeed the filmmaking team makes the ingenious choice to conjure up distinct ponds of both light and dark as Beth moves through the home and they also frame things within the house in a manner that is meant to trick you into looking at the parts of what’s in the camera where you would only look if there was someone there. It’s also worth noting that the work done by editing and sound design also manage to work in beautiful synchronicity with the rest of the film in some truly amazing and spooky ways to conjure up some moments that will shock you with particular regard to one moment that actually manage to startle me and that, as anyone who knows me will tell you. Suffice it to say though this is one film that doesn’t utilize watered down pop out scares to get its intended effect. Instead, this is a film that aims to wrap you up in a feeling of extreme anxiety and then push you as hard as it can. A method that I can promise you most assuredly works. Yet for how wonderful the work done on this film by the other creative departments is, it is the performance given in this film by Rebecca Hall that is perhaps the most incredible component of the whole film. Indeed this is a movie that required a strong actress to make it work since this narrative is one that revolves around the main character an incredible deal. It should come as no surprise then to learn that Hall is able to lift that weight in a way that is quite stellar. Yes her blunt manner and subdued isolation combined to make for quite the intriguing balancing act for the actress to pull off, but pull it off she does to the point that she is absolutely riveting in every minute of screen time she gets from a fairly to the point conversation with her co-workers about the loss she has suffered or in looking into the mystery house that her late husband was working on. Suffice it to say it truly is a potent and visceral performance that helps elevate the movie it’s in that much more.
All in all despite having made its initial premiere at that iconic and quite prestigious locale that is the Sundance Film Festival all the way back in the infamous year that is 2020, the slice of cinematic pie that is The Night House is, at long last, getting its wide release into movie theaters….only it’s also getting said release in that Phantom Tollbooth-style doldrum time period for cinema known as late August. Thankfully, unlike a lot of the other slices of cinematic pie I have watched that came out around this same time period over the years, this one is a true gem that I promise you should definitely not be skimmed past or pushed to the side in any way, shape, form, or fashion. Yes it might not always make the most of the unease and suspense that it slowly but surely builds throughout, but this slice of cinematic pie’s narrative dealing with a woman trying to move on in the aftermath of her loved one tragically taking his own life makes the hovering enigma of love feel just as unnerving as any otherworldly influences out there in the world. Suffice it to say then that this slice of cinematic pie is a much needed shot of psychological horror that excels in regards to both creativity and delivery to audiences whilst also coming equipped with a downright incredible performance from the talented actress Rebecca Hall and is one slice of cinematic pie that I feel has earned the right to be called one of this year’s best entries in the genre of movie magic known as horror. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Night House “2021” a solid 4 out of 5.