“Don’t go into the woods,” altogether too many characters have been warned through the annals of spooky literature and cinema, only to do so anyway, but Rebecca Hall has no choice because she already lives there in The Night House. Director David Bruckner clearly relishes the tropes of the horror genre and everything that comes with them. Honestly, though, we’ve been down this dark and woodsy path so many times that, no matter how many scares and shock cuts can be squeezed out of this crafty little thriller, this is a tree that’s long since been shorn of most of its leaves.
Searchlight paid a hefty $12 million for this Midnight favorite at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, only to have Covid slam the door in its face and force a year-and-a-half wait to get the film in front of a paying public. It opens on Friday and, in the long run, will find its biggest audience among teens watching at home on Friday and Saturday nights—or these days, more or less any night.
Bruckner is an avid genre addict, having debuted with the Nordic noir The Ritual at Toronto’s Midnight Madness sidebar in 2017 and now conjuring a remake of Hellraiser. Rabid may simply be the most accurate term to describe his predilection for the genre, so it’s pretty easy to say that like-minded enthusiasts will happily jump onboard for the desired bumpy ride, while others…not so much.
What The Night House distinctly has going in its favor is Hall, whose distinguished English stage lineage is now being paralleled by a big-screen career that, just within the past year, has embraced both her film directorial debut with the very arty Passing, which debuted at Sundance in January, and this Saturday night date catnip, in which she’s terrified rather more than will be most of the audience.
After her architect husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) offs himself with a gun, Beth (Hall) elects to remain in the house, even after she confides to her pals that, “I feel like there’s something watching me.” Under the circumstances, this turns into an open invitation for all things creepy to converge upon the isolated widow, beginning with the predictable bumps in the night that quickly morph into odd-hour phone calls and a naked man putting in an appearance in the lake just outside the house. If there were ever a time for her to stay with friends for a while, this would seem to be it but, no, Beth seems to believe in confronting her demons—who or whatever they are—head-on.
If you’re go along with this logic, you might like the rest of the picture.
The sheer intelligence and fortitude that emanate from Hall lend her struggle a measure of weight for a while as she tries to wrestle the busy demons to the ground.
But charity does have its limits. As Bruckner pushes through into the story’s second half—and with Beth becoming increasingly convinced that her husband had long concealed a secret private life—the story becomes an excuse, or a launching pad, for ever-escalating and far-fetched flights of fancy that tax viewer credulity and patience.
The closer the film gets to having to resolve itself and make Beth’s obsession pay off, the less credible and the more contrived it becomes. Perhaps the point of it all is that Beth has to push herself to great extremes of paranoia, fear and dark imaginings to definitively come to grips with what has happened to her husband and herself. Still, despite Hall’s valiant efforts, The Night House sooner or later comes to feel like a cheap rigged game more than a serious investigation into the mysteries of a man’s death and the efforts of his wife to understand why it happened.
The film is deftly crafted, with cinematographer Elisha Christian, who has dwelled for years in the camera department in various capacities and also shot the excellent indie Columbus four years ago, doing a notable job. Also registering well is Stacy Martin, who is perhaps finally ready to emerge from the shadow of Lars von Trier and Nymphomaniac into some work of substance.