“The Night House” – Definitely dark [MOVIE REVIEW]

Rebecca Hall as Beth in "The Night House." Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

Rebecca Hall as Beth in “The Night House.” Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

As long as there are audiences out there, there will be horror films. David Bruckner, the director, and the writing team of Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski have trod this path before. Attempting to combine supernatural elements with thriller undertones, they almost get it. But almost only counts in horseshoes and this young team opted for the easy, spooky, possessed avenue rather than the more difficult path of imagination and discovery.

In bucolic upstate New York along a lake, in a beautiful, isolated home lived Beth, a school teacher, and her beloved husband Owen an architect. But life turned upside down when Owen committed suicide in their rowboat, not far from the house. Restless at night, fitfully sleeping, she is awakened by banging noises both inside and outside the house. Nothing, but a feeling, is there. Often awake, she begins to explore, examining the detritus of the life Owen left behind—architectural plans, books on mazes, his cell phone that has mysteriously been leaving her texts. And on that cell phone and his computer are photos, dozens, of women who look like her but are not her.

Among his architectural drawings are the plans for a dwelling he called his reverse house—their house but everything is a mirror image. She begins exploring the woods and discovers the framing of this unknown house. It shouldn’t be there at all. This is national park land. She runs into her very kind neighbor Mel and asks if he had ever seen Owen in the woods? He hems, he haws, and finally admits that he did come across him in those woods with another woman, one he initially thought was her. When he reencountered Owen alone, Owen begged him not to tell. He had urges, Owen told Mel. Urges he was trying hard to quell.

Rebecca Hall as Beth in “The Night House.” Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

The act of living becomes even more difficult for Beth as she tries to make sense of the photos on the computer, the mysterious, ominous sounds in the house, and the palpable presence of Owen. Beth is being possessed and begins to succumb to what may or may not be the dark commands of her dead husband who, she realizes, had an evil secret life.

To say more would be unfair. But more inexcusable is what the filmmakers ignored as a deeper, more thrilling premise than the supernatural (unless supernatural supersedes everything for you). At one point Beth finds a horrifying key to her husband. Far more interesting would have been to make Beth’s possession more psychological as she finds herself locked into a previously unknown mystery. Don’t get me wrong, the psychological elements are there until, at the end, they’re not. The trope of supernatural possession shows less depth in character than what following a horrific crime can do to the mind. By taking the path less followed, the filmmakers might have made a film with psychological substance because mental horrors leave a much longer impact exceeding the physical ones once the monsters go away. One could argue that the so-called invasion of the supernatural is, in reality, the battle to relieve oneself of the psychological terror brought on by the new frightening realizations of who her husband was. That, unfortunately, would give “The Night House” too much credit.

What Bruckner does get right, however, is the constant feeling of foreboding that creates a tense, dark atmosphere. He, Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski successfully tie in the seemingly obscure references to mazes to create an elaborate maze of this film. Elisha Christian, the Director of Photography, uses the camera to heighten the disconnect between the beauty of the area with the ominous darkness of Beth’s night world.

Bruckner is immensely aided by his lead, Rebecca Hall, as Beth. No wide-eyed victim is she. Hall gives substance to a woman who realizes that her whole world was built on sands that have shifted. Her dark, unusual beauty makes you root for her even as her body becomes less and less her own. In Hall, Bruckner had someone who could sell his concept. He and the writers have given less credibility and depth to the supporting characters. This is especially a shame as regards Vondie Curtis Hall (no relation to Rebecca) who plays Mel, the sympathetic neighbor who understands her loss. Hall is an actor of depth who, here, is given little to do other than look sympathetic and mouth tropes about death. Worse off is Sarah Goldberg, Beth’s friend Claire, who has the unenviable role of being the best friend who is always asking “Are you okay?” Evan Jonigkiet plays the dead Owen of Beth’s dreams and then her nightmares. His menacing looks differ little from his loving ones, but then maybe that’s the point.

If you want a horror movie about possession, this one’s for you. If not…

Opening August 20 at the Laemmle Theatres in Glendale, NoHo, Pasadena Playhouse, and the Landmark on Pico.

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