Whenever a horror movie opens, the filmmaker should want to pull the audience immediately into the atmosphere and/or setting they want to create. For example, immediately when Bernard Rose’s Candyman opens (this is the most recent horror film that I watched, so it’ll do as an example), Philip Glass’ score fills the entire frame with a sense of pure dread and anxiety, something you’ll likely be feeling for the next ninety minutes or so, even if the titular character doesn’t appear until halfway through the film. You’re instantly hooked, eagerly awaiting for the film to (really) kick into gear as it slowly unravels its mystery on Daniel Robitaille/Candyman. If a horror film can’t establish the tone from its opening scene, it may not achieve much through its relationship with the audience. They don’t need to be easily scared (Candyman‘s opening sequence is comprised solely of establishing shots) but have a feeling that something sinister is going to happen. This, unfortunately, isn’t the case with David Bruckner’s The Night House, a supernatural thriller that not only isn’t scary but doesn’t have anything remotely interesting to say on the central theme of grief. Instead, we get a rather convoluted plot filled that gets more muddled as it goes along.
The premise is quite simple: High school teacher Beth (Rebecca Hall) is coping with the recent loss of her husband, Owen (Evan Jonigkeit), who inexplicably committed suicide. Trying to get on with life by continuing to work as a teacher and socialize with her co-workers, Beth starts to go into Owen’s belongings and uncovers dark secrets about her husband. During one night, she receives a text message from Owen as the music in her home blares up. Is it a sign that Owen has reincarnated himself through another entity? Is Owen really alive, and did he fake his death? What’s going on with a reverse version of their house? Is anything real? Or all a dream? These are questions you may ask yourself during the entire film, and, spoiler alert, none of them will get answered by the end.
Bruckner likes to present his film with many interesting concepts on occult horror yet makes sure none of them have any meaning to the film’s overall story. He first establishes a supernatural presence inside Beth’s house. Viewers are inclined to believe that it’s Owen haunting her, akin to the plot of 2020’s The Invisible Man, where the invisible spirit of Adrian haunted Cecilia. But, of course, this isn’t The Invisible Man, as Owen’s presence in The Night House is legitimately supernatural and is slowly distorting Beth’s mind. The audience is trapped in endless fever dreams, in a sort of limbo, if you will, between life and death, or in this case, reality and fiction. Beth can no longer discern what’s real anymore, as her dreams become too real, which causes her reality to be a nightmare.
This incredible potential of constantly questioning your own reality during a supernatural horror makes for great cinema, and The Night House has the makings of a truly unnerving horror film. Yet most of these sequences are littered with cheap jumpscares that act as “atmospheric beats” when the film has no interesting atmosphere, to begin with. Jumpscares do not equal scary. If you’re constantly trying to scare the audience through jumpscares, you’re only bringing their adrenaline levels up a bit until you overuse the trope to the point where it becomes an annoyance. A jumpscare should only be used sparsely when tension is at an all-time high, not randomly as an excuse to forego atmosphere. Look at the jumpscare in Candyman, where Daniel Robitaille’s hook penetrates the medicine cabinet of Helen’s house. The tension is amazingly palpable. Most audience members are on the edge of their seats, and BANG! This is where a jumpscare feels right because it’ll only add more tension and anxiety. Unfortunately, tension is never built upon in The Night House, as nightmares become reality and reality becomes nightmares to the point where none of it can be properly discerned. The audience keeps asking themselves what’s real and isn’t, which renders the film’s scares ineffective and rarely work, aside from one or two unexpected jumps that could make you get out of your seat a little more.
It’s a real shame, especially when Rebecca Hall likely gives the performance of her career. Never has she been so confident on the screen in juggling multiple emotions like a true master of the craft. One scene early on in the film where she confronts a mother on her son’s grade is riveting to watch, never knowing if Beth will snap immediately, as she tries to control her emotions by distracting herself. Still, her emotions will slowly take the better of her as she descends into pure madness. It’s great to see Hall in a role completely tailor-made for her, navigating fear, anger, and complete suffering in a way no one has ever truly done before in 21st-century horror. She magnifies the screen from beginning to end and shares great chemistry with supporting actors Vondie Curtis-Hall and Sarah Goldberg. Still, it’s the moments where she’s completely alone, frightened, and powerless, where she truly shines as an actress. It’s quite sad that the material isn’t worth her time, but she makes the most of it and single-handedly saves the film from being a true dud.
I’ll admit I had no idea what to expect with The Night House, but early reviews got me looking forward to seeing what Searchlight Pictures had been cooking up, and the result left me quite perplexed and, dare I say, disappointed. The potential was there for a truly memorable supernatural thriller that not only presented interesting concepts in reincarnation and voodoo practices but was legitimately scary. None of the ideas Bruckner presents are *that* interesting since he never elaborates on them. He moves on, from one concept to another, without stopping to explore the film’s central theme: grief. Everything going on in The Night House can be considered as Beth’s way to grieve her husband’s loss, but none of it is explored to its fullest extent. It’s either explored in surface-level dream sequences or touched so briefly that Bruckner might make you believe it’s unimportant. It only becomes more convoluted by the end of the film, where a drastic reveal is supposed to change our perception of Beth’s discernment between reality in fiction. It has become clear that Bruckner had nothing to say on any of the themes and/or ideas he presented in this film and only wanted to make an “elevated horror” film with great performances and atmosphere but completely put aside tension building and genuinely frightening scares. Because of this, it just ends up being another silly and hollow mainstream horror movie that doesn’t do much to anyone looking for a sleepless night.