Bad horror movies are exhausting. They evoke unpleasant feelings for the sake of cheap thrills, then dump you back into the real world feeling wrung out and diminished. A good horror movie, though, can send you home energized, chewing on questions that, if not quite pleasant, are at least interesting.
The Night House, starring ace British actress Rebecca Hall, is a good horror movie. In the spirit of The Shining or Crimson Peak, it explores the “house” part of the haunted house movie and eschews violence for deliciously creepy ideas.
Hall plays Beth, a college professor whose husband Owen has just committed suicide in the lake fronting the couple’s gorgeous dream house. Left alone to drink too much and pick up the pieces, Beth inevitably finds a trail of clues that suggest Owen’s death may not be what it seems.
She discovers a snapshot of a woman who looks just like her, some sinister books concerning dark magic, and a set of deeply confusing architectural floor plans for the house itself. Then the poltergeist stuff starts happening.
Those strange blueprints turn out to be the axis upon which the whole story tilts and turns. Director David Bruckner creates an unsettling psychological effect by playing around with distance and perspective inside that weirdo house. Angles don’t match up somehow, mirrored images abound, and light doesn’t fall like it should.
Bruckner also uses parallax effects and precise camera angles to create images out of negative space. This generates the perceptual phenomenon of pareidolia, in which the mind imposes meaning on random patterns. Like seeing a face in a cloud, say, or your dead husband in a shadowed doorway.
Meanwhile, the script develops a kind of doubling narrative effect as we learn more about Beth and Owen’s marriage. Conversations with a neighbor (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and a friend (Sarah Goldberg) reveal that the couple had a fundamental difference of opinion. Owen believed in an afterlife. Beth didn’t, and doesn’t, although recent events are opening her mind.
None of this is particularly new to the horror genre. Stanley Kubrick famously played with disconcerting geometries in the Overlook Hotel. And the husband-with-a-secret thing is practically a requirement in domestic thrillers.
What’s interesting is how the film threads the two lines together. In a sequence of third-act twists, The Night House delves into classic cosmic horror themes of existential dread in a cold and indifferent universe. Kubrick once said he found the idea of the ghosts in The Shining comforting, in that they suggest there is some sort of afterlife, as opposed to leaving us looking straight into the maw of eternal nothingness. I get that, and it lends a clever resonance to director Bruckner’s use of negative space imagery.
None of this works without the typically brilliant work of Rebecca Hall, who really is one of our great current screen performers. Hall comes up with a neat trick: She plays Beth as just stubborn enough—and just drunk enough—to do all those dumb things people do, in horror movies, regarding locked doors and dark staircases.
It’s notoriously difficult to stick the landing in these stories, but The Night House finds a decent-enough way to fade out. It avoids the typical Scooby-Doo explanatory ending and leaves us with some itchy ambiguities. Most scary movies are content with approximating coherence for 90 minutes.
The Night House has real ideas, which it develops if never quite resolves. Is not believing in ghosts scarier than believing? What if what we’re frightened of is, quite literally, nothing at all?
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