The Night House (2021), the Sleeper Hit of the Year

David Bruckner’s The Night House was a real sleeper hit for me, having first played in January 2020 at Sundance I heard nothing about this film until only a few weeks ago when I saw the trailer at the cinema. But the trailer alone was enough to entice me, so when it came out I went to go see it at my local cinema and was pleasantly surprised to find that I really enjoyed it. The trailer didn’t give enough away for me to know what to expect, so upon watching it and realising that it’s a unique, meditative film tackling grief and loss, while also providing ample scares (a few of which had me jumping out of my seat), I was impressed to say the least.

While we’re seeing a lot of horror films mainlining the concept of Mental Health issues as the basis for horror, and especially grief as the focal point, The Night House feels unique in combining it with a well-spun mystery that entices the audience into the distorted mindset of the main character. The film follows Beth, a teacher struggling in the wake of her husband’s suicide, who upon clearing out his things begins to suspect that he was hiding things from her whilst she was alive. This mystery deepens when she finds photos of women, who look similar to her in appearance, hidden on his laptop before eventually finding their dream house, but reversed, hidden away in the woods across the lake from their own home. The narrative is structured in such a way that the line between truth and delusion is so blurred that right up until the climax, and arguably even after the credits roll, the reality of the story is still in question, allowing different readings of the film and whether what we see actually happened or is all inside Beth’s head in a way that feels rewarding rather than contrived. By blending the dark narrative aspects with the dissociation of grief, there are elements that can be read in different ways while still reaching the same conclusion.

The most obvious factor of the film that deserves talking about is Rebecca Hall’s tour de force performance as Beth. The film is very much a character study, often leading to long stretches of the film that revolve around Hall in her remote house alone. And whether it’s the pain and grief of mourning, or the anger and hurt at the discovery of deception, Hall lands every scene wonderfully. When you compare some of the early scenes of Hall wallowing in her house, and compare it to the confrontation with a parent at the school or later in the film when she meets Stacy Martin’s Madelyne it really showcases Hall’s range and ability on screen. Similarly right at the end of the film, there’s a scene where Hall’s character is essentially out-of-it and once again the acting in this moment is superb, really nailing, in such an uncomfortable way, the sense of disassociation and vacancy, which is juxtaposed to a really frantic and intense sequence right beforehand. 

I also want to commend the horror in The Night House, it tows the line between methodic, almost existential horror of losing a loved one, and out-right jump-scares and terror. There were a handful of times when I was really caught off guard by a scare and jumped in my seat, but it never felt overdone or cheap, which a lot of modern horrors tend to feel like. Equally the film manages to keep you engaged by combining the mystery of the plot with the constant unease of what’s to come next. The claustrophobic house that serves as the primary location feels off, and whilst it’s modern and chic look would make you feel otherwise, the film does a great job of utilising the dark cinematography and shadows to turn the woodland dream home into a source of constant dread. The film manages to achieve this so well through Elisha Christian’s cinematography, who manages to capture the beauty of the woods and it’s peaceful bliss during the day and then juxtaposing this with the eerie shadows and looming architecture whilst shooting at night. There are certain shots which are framed wonderfully to really give them that sense of power over the visuals displayed within them. Whilst I can’t go into too much detail due to spoilers, the very last scene is a perfect example of this juxtaposition on display and anyone who has seen the film will know what I’m talking about as the cinematography really enhances all the tension that has built up to the climax.

As I said at the start of this review, for a film that I saw little to no buzz about online, this really was the sleeper hit of the year so far for me. I went to see it on a whim based on a couple viewings of the trailer from previous cinema visits and because I was looking to fill an evening when nothing else playing interested me. But I came out of it having had a really enjoyable experience, with great performances from the entire cast, really solid cinematography and great direction. It is one of the best horror films released so far this year, and makes me very excited to follow Rebecca Hall’s career in whatever she decides to do next, as well as hoping for a continuation of the craft on display from David Bruckner in his next projects (as well as giving me the push I needed to finally watch The Ritual).

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