As a professional critic, I try always to maintain a certain detachment, and to not get pulled into a film’s manipulations—its emotional vortices. But there are moments in David Bruckner’s new horror film “The Night House” that are almost unbearable in their tension. Viewers may not simply feel their own full-body waves of goosebumps, as I did. So invasive is Bruckner’s technique that they may even feel actor Rebecca Hall’s own hairs rise through paranormal osmosis. I felt as disarmed, and helpless, as the character.
“The Night House” is a veritable buffet for horror buffs, because so many of the genre’s tropes surface here: There’s a haunted house, astral travel, night terrors, a near-death experience, doppelgangers, missing time, occult literature, and bodies under creaky floorboards, all presented in a way that will keep curious and patient audiences guessing until the final moments. Your appreciation for Bruckner’s craft will depend on how fully you allow yourself, as I did, to fall under his spell.
Hall plays Beth, high school teacher and recent widow to Owen (Evan Jonigkeit), an architect who inexplicably took his own life by gunshot on the dinghy outside their lake house. Isolated in the remote and capacious property, Beth drowns her grief in (too much) alcohol, rewatching old videos of the ostensibly happy couple, trying and failing to understand why the stable bedrock of their relationship suddenly felt he could no longer go on.
As Beth reveals to her colleagues, a near-death experience she endured at 17 convinced her there is nothing on the “other side.” Yet this skeptic cannot help but be shaken by the escalating events that confound this belief on a nightly basis: Bracing pounding on the front door, the stereo that turns on by itself at a bludgeoning volume, the fresh texts that arrive from “Owen” demanding she “come down” from their second-story bedroom. This is just the beginning, prompting Beth to explore her husband’s phone and computer, and a rabbit hole of pagan literature and potential paramours contained therein.
Teetering, as it does, on the pinhead of its character’s seeming madness, “The Night House” is a decidedly interior thriller, and I thought more than once of “Repulsion,” Roman Polanski’s staple of psychological horror. We are right there with Beth, trying to solve a mystery that may or not be in her head (or her dreams). When she sees human-like forms within the furniture of her apparently living and breathing house, are they really shadow people? Or is it simply pareidolia, the mind seeing what it wants to see? “The Night House” dances beautifully on that border, not revealing its hand until the very end.
Beyond its supernatural elements, however, Bruckner’s film may ultimately concern the destructive ways we grieve. For Beth, alcohol is her crutch, and what begins as a coping mechanism begins to functions as a handmaiden for her demons. Like many of us on the living side of a fatal separation, we long for the impossibility of our loved one’s return, even if it fosters unhealthy habits—even if we should have left well enough alone.
“The Night House” opens Friday at most area theaters.