Spirited Cinema: The Night House is a haunting film

Hey, there’s a movie called the night House playing at your local movie theater. It’s a psychological horror movie, it’s pretty good with a solid Rebecca Hall in the central role, and you probably have no idea it exists.

This is one of those films that’s sort of going in and out of theaters unnoticed during these crazy moviegoing times. I sat in a completely empty theater watching this, matinee time on a Sunday. Much of the movie deals with the central character’s isolation in a lonely house, so the quiet of the theater itself heightened that part of the viewing experience. It made it creepier. It also reminded me that moviegoing levels are far from normal, and probably won’t be anywhere near normal for some time.

Hall plays Beth, a recently widowed schoolteacher living in a lonely lake house somewhere in upstate New York. Owen (Evan Jonigkeit), her architect husband, recently killed himself with a handgun out on the lake in a rowboat. That rowboat remains ominously tied to the dock, and starts to play a part in what could either be Beth’s hallucinations from lack of sleep and heavy depression drinking, or something far more troubling. As she suffers hard through her grief, it appears to her that Owen is haunting the house he built with his two hands. 

After rummaging through some of his workbooks and his phone, Beth starts to suspect Owen had a double life. That thought goes to such an extreme that she finds a “mirror house” in the woods, also allegedly designed by Owen, containing strange demonic totems, and horrifically dark possibilities. 

Is it all in Beth’s super grieving and depressed head? Is there a supernatural element that derived from a near-death experience she had years before, and was Owen secretly fighting that element? 

The beauty of movies like The Night House, nicely directed by David Bruckner (The Ritual), is that it works with whatever interpretation you choose. There are, in fact, mirrored explanations for what happens in this movie to such an extent that you could watch it twice and each viewing could have a completely different impact upon you. Each interpretation and experience being as powerful as the other. 

It works as a haunted house movie, with Bruckner creating a chilling atmosphere via camerawork, lighting and sound, relying less upon jump scares and more on expertly timed “ghostly moments.” Old tropes like bloody footprints, writing on mirrors and shadowy figures feel fresh in this director’s hands. Bruckner is more interested in making the audience feel unsettled and anxious rather than scaring the shit out of them. 

It also works as a movie where most of Beth’s suspicions about ghosts and her husband’s double life are in her head. She’s struggled with depression most of her life, and her trauma (combined with the aforementioned alcohol and lack of sleep) can be causing horrible hallucinations and waking nightmares. She is the very personification of unreliable narrator.

Hall delivers her best screen work since the underrated Christine, another film that dealt with suicide. She goes through the emotional wringer in this one, and it’s an impressive display of her underrated range. The most notable supporting performance comes from the great Sarah Goldberg (so good in TV’s Barry) as Beth’s best friend, a person who we can see is suffering as hard as her friend suffers. Goldberg delivers some of the year’s best “eye acting” in this movie. 

The Night House lingers with you after exiting the theater. Its mysteries and miseries stick in the craw, and Hall’s work resonates. It’s not a movie that has all of the answers for you, so you’ll probably find yourself calling friends to discuss possibilities and theories about its meaning, sort of like the conversations sparked by a David Lynch film.

Of course, your friends will have not seen the movie yet because nobody is taking themselves to the theater for a mildly marketed horror film with no A-list stars. So, wait patiently until your pals watch it on streaming in a few months, and let the speculations begin. 

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