Sundance Review: THE NIGHT HOUSE Opens And Shuts The Case For Rebecca Hall: Scream Queen

Hope you enjoy a little raw emotion along with your terror…

With The Night House, producer/director David Bruckner (The Ritual, V/H/S) and star Rebecca Hall (The Town, Christine) collaborate to push themselves in new directions. The collaboration is a fruitful one.

Films that truly terrify me to the point of goosebumps come few and far between. Welcome to that short list of films, The Night House. It’s the accomplished work of up and coming household name David Bruckner that yielded the horrifying hauntings and set pieces that had my Sundance audience gasping and awkwardly giggling in embarrassment at their gasps. But a whole lot of the stand out work in The Night House goes beyond just the visual horror elements. The screenplay from Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski lays out a strong human drama at the center of the terror. And the cast really shines with Rebecca Hall’s powerhouse lead performance backed up by a standout supporting role from Sarah Goldberg as Beth’s friend and co-worker Claire. Even longtime screen presence Vondie Curtis-Hall provides some neighborly sweetness as Mel, Beth’s only real neighbor on the lake where her titular home sits.

Before the opening credits even roll, we learn that Beth’s beloved husband has passed away. In short order it becomes clear that Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) shot himself in a small boat on the lake in the middle of the night. So The Night House is a story about grief and recovery as Beth makes the earliest of attempts to forge a path forward without her husband. She’s doing a lot of drinking, she’s going back to work too early, and she’s rustling through Owen’s belongings around the house. It’s then that she finds some oddities.

The Night House has a solid trifecta going for it as it’s terrifying when it goes for horror, it’s emotionally resonant when it goes for drama, and it’s captivating when it doles out bread crumbs of mystery. As Beth starts looking through Owen’s notes and designs, even digging through his phone, she realizes that there was a hidden portion of Owen’s life. He was an architect who built their home, and Beth finds all sorts of occult-like clues and eccentricities around it. As her obsessive investigation into Owen’s private life devolves, and hauntings materialize around the house, we learn a lot more about Beth as well. And what fun would it be if I told you anything more about this mystery? You’re going to have to see if for yourself to piece together the puzzle.

A surprisingly effective element of The Night House are the relationships. Scene after scene, we see Goldberg’s Claire really going above and beyond the call of duty as a loyal friend trying to help Beth cope with her tragedy. Beth was very obviously a playful and mischievous friend before tragedy struck, so there’s remnants of that shining through their interactions. The lightest and most beautiful moments of The Night House are shared between Beth and Claire, or between Beth and her neighbor Mel. Both supporting actors do so much with their limited screen time and really become Beth’s only source of hope and family. There’s an emotional climax towards the very end of the film that clicked enough to draw out tears from my eyes.

Without spoiling anything, I do believe that the ending comes a little bit unhinged and perhaps fails to bring every last thread together in a thematically cohesive way. Then again, a rewatch could also help in unpacking some of the themes once a viewer knows where the story is taking them. Like many horror films with a mystery component, the answers simply don’t feel as compelling as the journey that led us there. But even when I found myself questioning some of the final answers, there are thrilling visuals in the finale that ramp up the tension and horror in a solidly executed climax. I think The Night House will generate some interesting dialog around exactly what the ending has to say. And with the breaking news that this title just got purchased for theatrical distribution by Searchlight, perhaps it won’t be too long before we get to have that cultural conversation.

I’m green when it comes to the buyer’s market element of a film festival. But if I might speculate a little bit, it really doesn’t surprise me that The Night House was snatched up by a distributor. I think the general public loves a good haunted house movie. Rebecca Hall may not be a household name, but she’s got an impressive body of work and this film could really gain her a genre following. David Bruckner did very well with his last film The Ritual, which went directly to Netflix, so he’s on a bit of a hot streak with a similar skill set to that of emerging horror master Mike Flanagan. Sundance will not be the last you hear of The Night House, nor of the names attached to this effective fright film.