‘The Night House’ review: Rebecca Hall is tremendous in David Bruckner’s tense, twisty horror thriller
When will the world finally wake up and recognize the wondrous talents of Rebecca Hall? Not only has the actress conquered nearly every genre, from comedy (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe) to crime (The Town) to crowd-pleasing blockbusters (Iron Man 3, Godzilla vs. Kong) and everything in between, but she’s also accomplished some of the most audacious acting feats that most performers can only fantasize about, such as her piercing and profound portrayal of the late Christine Chubbuck in Antonio Campos’ 2016 biopic, Christine.
No matter the material, Hall always elevates what she’s been given considerably, suffusing her characters with a soulfulness and sincerity that precious few actors can replicate. And, in this week’s The Night House, her fervent dedication to her craft is on full display once again. Though the film isn’t Hall’s first foray into the horror genre – having notably led Joel Edgerton’s grim The Gift alongside Jason Bateman in 2015 – The Night House affords her a richer and more resonant role, and Hall takes full advantage of this opportunity, delivering what very well may be one of the most memorable female performances in horror history.
The Night House begins on the grieving Beth (Hall), a schoolteacher who has just recently – and unexpectedly – lost her husband Owen (Frontier’s Evan Jonigkeit) to suicide. Despite concerns from her coworker and best friend Claire (Barry’s Sarah Goldberg) and her nervous neighbor Mel (Harriet’s Vondie Curtis-Hall), Beth continues to maintain that she is fine, hiding her internal hurting and attempting to look for a path forward in life. However, whilst being left alone in the lakeside home Owen had built for the two of them, Beth starts to get the feeling that, while she may be seeking to move on, something else wants her to stay put – and it will make its wishes clear.
While the eerie events Beth experiences start small – footsteps on a squeaky wood floor, doors shutting spontaneously, stereos turning on in the middle of the night, etc. – this presence grows more petrifying by the day, and as Beth begins to believe that it might be the spirit of her dearly departed husband, she simultaneously starts to discover secrets about his hidden life that he was keeping in their home, including a reverse floor plan for a replica of their house and even more puzzling information in his phone. However, given Beth’s fraught mental state, how many of these terrors are real? And if she does keep digging deeper into her husband’s horrors, will she lose herself in the process?
Above all else, The Night House is most successful as a showcase for Rebecca Hall’s ravishing range as an actress, as she is asked to exhibit nearly every emotion imaginable over the course of the film’s 109-minute runtime, and she responds to this request with raw resilience, courageously chronicling the woes of this troubled widow. When Beth is tightly wound at the start, so too is Hall, concealing her heartache but still displaying a dismal disposition that allows us the briefest of insights into her anguish. And yet, as she’s persistently plagued by the pernicious presence inhabiting her home, these walls gradually tumble, and both Beth and Hall open up, fully giving themselves over to their erratic manic episodes and embracing the exclamations of the voice in their heads feeding into their fears.
Beth’s dark descent into delirium is personified perfectly in Hall’s perceptive performance, and this transition is textured with truth, as opposed to having Beth cast herself straight from calmness into chaos. Hall honorably sells the horrific allure of learning who your lover really was after being duped and deceived for over a decade, and even though we can’t always condone her actions or we might wish that she’d abandon this painful pursuit once and for all, she finds scenes to spotlight Beth’s innermost sadness to show that it isn’t pure delirium driving her probing – it’s the brutal sting of betrayal. In any other film, such adventurous and artistically varied acting would warrant awards recognition, but even if such plaudits don’t arise, Hall will make for a fine addition to the assortment of actresses overlooked for outstanding work in horror fare, alongside Hereditary’s Toni Collette and Us’ Lupita Nyong’o.
Director David Bruckner (The Ritual) supports his leading star at every turn of The Night House, complementing Hall’s penetrative portrayal of Beth’s unstable psyche with his own innovative interpretation of her perspective of the potentially supernatural plight she’s found herself in, particularly during her strikingly suspenseful and visually stupefying dream sequences. There isn’t a single moment in which we are not entirely in tune with Beth’s emotional state, and that is all due to Bruckner’s deft direction and astute grasp on atmosphere, along with assists from a stellar sound team (just wait and see what they do with one early “jump scare”) and Ben Lovett’s scintillating score.
Praise must also be provided to screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (Super Dark Times), who conjure up a truly chilling tale that somehow mostly avoids clichés and conventions of similar horror films the whole way through and offers what is undoubtedly one of the most unpredictable additions to the genre in years. Though a twist in the third act threatens to send things off course, Collins and Piotrowski are mostly able to steer this ship into safer waters before the end credits commence, but it’s also hard not to wonder what might have happened if things didn’t wrap up so tidily, given the success they find in the more sinister real-world repugnance Beth uncovers on her search. Still, their plotting is so propulsive prior to this explicitly paranormal payoff – and Hall sells the subtext of the script so well – that it’s easy to overlook any minor quibbles with the movie’s resolution.
The Night House is not only a perfect horror movie to signal the end of summer and the arrival of the always-eerie autumn, but it’s also one of the best horror movies of the year so far, full stop, and it features the best use of Rebecca Hall’s towering talents since her tremendous turn in 2016’s Christine. Filled with sensationally spine-chilling setpieces and supplemented by a script that engages audiences beyond the film’s aesthetics thanks to a compelling emotional core, The Night House is the rare horror film that manages to both terrify you and make you think, at the same time.
The Night House will be available in theaters on Friday, August 20.