Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Rebecca Hall makes The Night House worth a peek


What do you do when you lose someone you love? That's the problem Beth (Rebecca Hall) has to deal with everyday now. Just waking up in the morning is a problem, especially since she's awakening in the house her now deceased husband, Owen, built with his own two hands. As she grapples with what her existence even looks like now, Beth begins to notice some strange occurrences. First she hears an unexpected gunshot noise one morning, then there are the peculiar noises in the middle of the night. What's going on? Is there some kind of spirit in her house? Is Beth not as alone as she thought? Some photos on Owen's phone of another woman also lead her to suspect that her dead lover may not have been entirely what he seemed.

The Night House, directed by David Bruckner and written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, is one of those weighty horror movies that's more interesting to unpack as a lengthy metaphor than it is frightening as a straightforward horror movie. Obviously, heavy themes and chill-inducing scares can work together seamlessly, just ask the likes of Jennifer Kent, George A. Romero, Ari Aster, or countless other horror filmmakers. But in The Night House, I found myself spending more time to try and unpack imagery on-screen and how it connects to Beth's plight rather than being regularly terrified. It'd help if the visuals were more abstract and not meant to be dissected, but Bruckners visual approach is more like a puzzle waiting to be solved than just ambiguous shots meant to be freely interpreted.

Even Bruckner seems to be aware of how the film isn't as heavy on conventional scares since The Night House drops (a few too many) predictable jump scares in its first-half that base frightening the viewer on just abrupt loudness rather than character-driven thrillers. However, even if The Night House isn't the next The VVitch in terms of thought-provoking horror cinema, it's still an intriguing exercise that left me affected more often than not. Interestingly, the film often works best as just a grounded drama about a woman navigating the complexities of losing a loved one. Death by suicide is already a challenge to contemplate. Eventually discovering a deceased lover was a much more complicated figure is a whole other kettle of fish. 

Collins and Piotrowski don't shy away from depicting the messiness of Beth grappling with these issues. Her candor and imperfections are fascinating to watch considering how authentically-rendered they feel. This doesn't feel an approximation of how it feels to lose someone, The Night House makes time for both ghostly haunts and realistically complex depictions of grief. This weighty material is perfect for lead performer Rebecca Hall, a constantly underrated actor that deserves more substantive lead roles like this one. The Night House is Hall's show and she proves more than equipped to step up to that challenge.

I especially like how well Hall handles Beth's recurring instances of dry dark humor. It's a side of Beth that tends to make others uncomfortable for how frankly it mentions concepts like suicide or depresison. However, Hall subtly conveys how her casual attitude towards these ideas suggests a darker side to this character, one that's all too familiar with the process of teetering on the verge of death. She actsl like she's confidently unafraid to conceal the fear she deals with everyday. There's so much to unpack in Hall's richly-layered performer but elements of her work, like that sardonic wit, also make it a performance one can enjoy for all its surface-level pleasures as well. 

When it comes time for the nighttime heightened sequences, Bruckner and cinematographer Elisha Christian lather on the red color grading and unexpected imagery. The best of these visuals is how some kind of entity keeps appearing as the corner of a room or the space between a pillar and a doorway. It's hard to explain, but in the movie itself, this being is like a niftily eerie rorschach test that constantly tests the audience and Beth on what they're actually seeing. Even more so than the visuals, the sound work is what really sells the atmosphere of these nightmarish scenes of uncertainty in The Night House. It may not be the scariest depiction of coping with grief, but the thematic ambition, not to mention Rebecca Hall's lead performance, make The Night House someplace horror afficianados likely won't regret residing in.

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