The director of horror films like The Ritual, David Bruckner, is back with another project belonging to the same genre. Starring the endlessly talented Rebecca Hall as Beth – a recently widowed school teacher, The Night House is a peculiar example of a perfectly executed design that is built on a lopsided framework of poorly formed philosophical implications.
After her husband Owen (played by Evan Jonigkeit) rows out into the middle of a lake and shoots himself in the head, Beth naturally finds herself on a severe downward spiral. Fuelled by the bitter taste of alcohol and obsolete memories, she tries really hard to recreate a portion of her life that has forever passed her by. Instead of reliving the good times, she experiences nightmares, which somehow leads her to conclude that her husband is still out there somewhere.
The Night House ends up becoming a vehicle for Hall’s mesmerising performance as a grieving woman slipping into insanity. On a strange quest to uncover her husband’s mysterious past, Beth traverses a surreal landscape that is both physical and psychological. Elisha Christian’s breathtaking cinematography successfully crystallises these atmospheric invocations of terror and dread, indulging in deliberate symbolism and meditative reflections which are destabilised by engineered jump scares.
The recurring problem of the afterlife lies at the core of The Night House’s existential investigations. While Beth believes that the void awaits us all after death, her husband actively performed horrifying rituals to allegedly ward off evil spirits. The film itself is unsure of what it’s trying to say, oscillating violently between the idea of an overwhelming nothingness and the supernatural clichés surrounding the idea of evil. In doing so, it ends up as an unconvincing argument for either side.
Bruckner admitted in an interview: “I find when confronting grim ideas, particularly concepts of meaninglessness and nothingness, which is something that the script tapped into that genuinely scared me and was the reason that I wanted to make this film, you gotta sprinkle a little magic on it to make it digestible. Otherwise, it’s too confrontational to sort of even have the conversation.”
The director’s comments bring us to the crux of the matter – the severely flawed screenplay by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski. Due to its fear of being confrontational (which is absurd because the best horror films are inherently confrontational), The Night House can only be evaluated as a collection of cleverly crafted visions from a fever dream rather than a coherent thesis on the evolutionary denial of our own mortality that anthropologists like Ernest Becker wrote about.
In an attempt to conduct its own examination of morality, The Night House forgets to blame the evil spirits as well as the void. Furthermore, it engages in the enormously paradoxical attempt to personify the void, which is too hilarious to be included in a horror film. But hey, Rebecca Hall can act.