We share a loss, but we grieve separately. The Night House, a horror film in which despair and depression are as dangerous as any boogeyman, begins with Beth (Rebecca Hall), a schoolteacher in upstate New York, returning from her husband Owen’s funeral (Evan Jonigkeit). Beth is escorted to the door by a concerned friend who tells her she can call her at any time, hands her a casserole, and then leaves without accompanying her inside. Beth pauses as the sun sets over the nearby lake, throws the casserole in the trash, and waits for night to arrive.
It is possible that it will not show up on its own. Beth’s nights are disturbed by more than just the death of her husband. Strange noises startle her awake. The dock leading up to the back door is marked by what appear to be bloody footprints. She receives texts from Owen one night, reminiscent of Personal Shopper, but when she wakes up, the texts have vanished. It is all very concerning. Worse yet, Beth begins to wake up away from her bed, with no recollection of moving from one location to another.
The Night House is a haunted-house storey and a mystery written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (the team behind the memorable 2017 film Super Dark Times) and directed by David Bruckner (part of the crew behind The Signal and V/H/S). A tense conversation between Beth and a student’s parent, who is trying to persuade Beth to give her son a higher grade because, after all, Beth was absent on the date she would schedule a make-up project, reveals the details of Owen’s death. Beth responds with open hostility, explaining that she was unavailable at the time because her husband had rowed out to the middle of the lake and shot him.
Beth begins to piece together the storey behind the suicide as the film progresses, but each new detail only adds to the mystery. Owen was the architect who designed their home, but why are there other plans for a similar home in the blueprints? Why did not their friendly widowed neighbour Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) tell Beth that he occasionally saw Owen walking through the woods late at night with another woman? Why do they have occult books in their library? And who is the woman in Owen’s phone photo, who has her head turned away from the camera? If Beth did not know better, she could almost pass for Beth.
As the clues pile up, Bruckner ramps up the scares, following a template for haunted-house films that dates back to 1944’s The Uninvited. It is well-executed enough to make The Night House worth seeing just for its technical merits, turning every corner of a luxurious lake house into a terrifying location. What stands out, however, is the film’s interest in delving deeper into ideas than how terrifying it might be to find yourself alone and seemingly surrounded by malevolent spectres. The title has a literal meaning in the film that is best left unspoilt, but it also connotes the loneliness of Beth’s newly empty home and the shadows that threaten to envelop her, shadows that could be dangerous.
Beth admits to her friends that Owen was their marriage’s optimist. She was the one who was prone to spiralling into the abyss. So, what should she do now? While her friends care about her, the more she talks about her loss, they become uncomfortable and impatient. They give her platitudes, dismiss her worries, and steer her away from investigating Owen’s death. It is difficult to know what to do or offer advice after a loss like this, and it all rings hollow to Beth’s ears anyway. Her visitors at night, on the other hand, have no trouble making themselves heard.
Beth is played by Hall as a difficult woman who, even in her hour of need, does not always invite sympathy. Her grief manifests as rage and suspicion. She acts in ways that make other people want to avoid her. Claire (Sarah Goldberg), her best friend, is at a loss for what to do except stay present and listen. The film weaves a study of what it means to realise you have built your life over an abyss into the fabric of a multiplex-friendly horror film, but it would not work if Hall’s deft, complex performance was not present. She portrays Beth as a woman shaken by her loss, but the real horror is how the secrets she uncovers appear to encourage her most self-destructive tendencies. When everything that gives her life meaning vanishes, it appears to be confirmation that it is all for naught. Perhaps it is time to pour another glass of brandy and allow the darkness to infiltrate the room.
As the demands of the genre begin to eat away at the ambiguity — at least up to a point — a sense of tension enters The Night House’s final stretch. The film fully reveals what Owen was up to prior to his death, but the implications of that revelation, particularly its connection to Beth’s past, can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and the film wisely avoids telling viewers what to think. The greyness suits the subject, even if the final moments will irritate viewers who are uncomfortable with unanswered questions. It is not always the houses that are haunted; sometimes it is the people who live inside them. Some ghosts are difficult to exorcise or explain away. We have to live with some of them.