There’s a moment somewhere in the middle of “The Night House” where director David Bruckner (“The Ritual”) delivers a scare is so big, that my body couldn’t help but leap out of its seat. And then, not long after that moment, all the shocks end.
It’s particularly unfortunate, because once it loses the horror, the movie can’t quite figure out how to combine the power of an expert performance with a muddled and confusing tale about grief, what we leave behind, and depression.
That expert performance comes from Rebecca Hall, who stars as Beth, a wise, no-nonsense schoolteacher, who lives with her architect husband, Owen (Evan Jonigkeit, “The Ritual”) in a beautiful home that he built on a lake somewhere in upstate New York. But Beth has always looked over her shoulder; she’s used to a certain darkness following her in life. After a terrifying incident, Beth tells best pal Claire (Sarah Goldberg, “Barry”) about an “entity” that has followed her since a near-death experience in Beth’s youth that stopped her heart for four minutes. Beth’s kind neighbor Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) grows worried about her too, and he has a good reason to be.
After Owen’s unexpected suicide, Beth is unnerved by the sudden realization that she may not have known her husband as well as she thought, and that leeriness gains strength as she experiences frightening events and discovers strange things her husband has kept hidden away. She moves through her sadness, anger, and numbness in a way that both Claire and Mel find jarring. As she ascends deeper into grief, the darkness left behind only grows: Is Beth haunted by her depression over her husband’s death, or is Owen literally haunting her?
Using a haunting as a metaphor for depression and grief is a murky road. While “The Night House” writers Ben Collins (“Super Dark Times”) and Luke Piotrowski (“Stephanie”) tend to nail the horror and grief aspects, the script loses steam when trying to reconcile Beth’s experience with her depression. Any insight the screenplay offers comes far too early in the film, and for the remaining 40 minutes or so, the film tries to figure out how to combine all these ideas into one conclusion. By the time we get to those final moments, too much filler has been added, and the metaphors drown out the story.
What saves the film from those loose ends is that master class of performance from Hall. Throughout the 108 minutes of “The Night House,” Hall is in command of every scene. Wisely, director Bruckner allows her to envelop herself in the minutia of melancholy. At times, it feels like Bruckner ignores the story’s other elements just to make room for Hall to convey what the script could not deliver — the depth of emotion that comes with fighting your demons while simultaneously mourning a loss. The additional layer of some pretty fantastic sound design also elevates the terror and the tension.
Hall’s work, the sound, and some imaginative visual play give the film life, but not nearly enough. There are a ton of loose ends that the script never bothers to reconcile, particularly regarding Owen’s secret life. Was he a philanderer? Did he dabble in dark magic? We never really learn the truth, there’s not much payoff to his secrets, and the red herrings mainly serve to dim Hall’s contribution by taking the focus away from her and her character.
“The Night House” works as an exploration of grief because of Rebecca Hall’s incredible performance, plain and simple. But as a horror film, it overpromises early on and then fails to deliver on any chills that go beyond a jump scare.
“The Night House” opens in US theaters August 20.