The Night House

The premise of The Night House, that suicide irreparably damages the lives of the survivors, is a compelling one for a horror movie.  For Rebecca Hall’s Beth, her husband’s death understandably leaves her an emotional wreck, unable to control her anger at work and her despair at home.  The night brings no solace, with Beth possibly being haunted by her husband’s ghost.  After an engaging first act, the movie shifts our attention to the mystery of Beth’s husband’s death and the secrets he kept from her.  Was he having an affair, or affairs?  Why was he reading books about the occult?  What do all those strange architecture diagrams mean?  One twist gives way to another, and then another, until the movie lays on a heavy dose of the supernatural in a strained attempt at tying everything up.  The final reveal is logical, but nagging questions remain unanswered.  Hall delivers a compelling and convincing portrayal throughout, possibly a career highlight.  David Bruckner’s naturalistic direction gives the movie a disarmingly creepy vibe, at least until the final confrontation.  Recommended.

Back in 2008, Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson starred in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.  Since then, Johansson’s career has exploded.  She’s starred in eight Marvel movies as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow.  Hall, on the other hand, has made one appearance in a Marvel movie during that time frame, playing a supporting character in one Marvel movie: Iron Man 3 (see below).  Clearly, no actor’s career should be judged solely on their appearances in superhero movies.  However, in the case of Johansson and Hall, the comparison, crude as it may be, illustrates how two people who worked together can have such widely different careers afterwards.  

This wasn’t for lack of trying on Hall’s part.  When she’s taken roles in films geared towards popular appeal, acting alongside well-known actors, those movies have not panned out.  Transcendence (Johnny Depp, 2014) Holmes & Watson (Will Ferrell, 2018) were widely panned.  The BFG (2016) was one of Steven Spielberg’s few swings-and-misses.  A Rainy Day in New York (2019) her second Woody Allen movie, was buried due to the overwhelming negative attention Allen was getting.  Hall’s performance as Christine Chubbuck in 2016’s Christine earned her critical recognition, but went largely unseen, probably due to the dark subject matter.  Earlier this year, Hall appeared in Kong v. Godzilla as King Kong’s speech therapist, and the less said about that movie, the better.  Hall has probably acted in every category of movie, but just hasn’t broken out.

The Night House provides Hall with the rare opportunity to play the lead, and her performance is unquestionably a triumph.  While the movie is well directed and produces several genuinely scary moments, the plot is too clever by half, and trivializes Hall’s emotionally raw performance.  The screenplay feels like it was constructed from three different stories that were stapled together.  First there’s the story of a widow who’s grieving from her husband’s suicide, and her fragile emotional state.  Next, there’s the story of a widow trying to figure out why her husband committed suicide, and an investigation of his secret life.  Finally, there’s the story of a woman who has to confront the supernatural element that is the cause of her husband’s actions, as well as her own depression.

For me, the first part is the most engrossing, and focuses primarily on Beth and how she’s coping with her husband’s death.  Like most people coming to terms with the death of a loved one, her emotions cycle between anger and depression.  She’s emotionally frayed when she’s around people, snapping at them and making darkly glib references about her husband’s suicide.  At night, she tortures herself watching wedding videos and packing up her husbands things. (The song played at their wedding reception, “The Calvary Cross” by Richard Thompson, feels a bit melancholy.) Beth then begins to see her husband outside the house, but she isn’t sure whether she’s dreaming of him or not.  She sees footprints on the boat dock leading up to her house, only for them to disappear.  At this point, the movie appears to be asking: is Beth seeing Owen’s ghost, or is she losing her mind?

The second part is effective, but shifts our attention away from Beth coping with her life after Owen’s death to her trying to figure out why he killed himself, and what he was doing before he died.  Beth finds a picture of a woman that looks a lot like her on Owen’s phone, then more pictures of similarly looking women on his laptop.  Beth sees women running around at night and lights from a house opposite hers across the lake, and later finds a house similar to hers, but incomplete.  She also finds books about occult rituals and strange architectural designs  in Owen’s room.  Clues seem to indicate that Owen was having an affair, or multiple affairs, but the mystery is far more complex than that.

The third part is where the screenplay for TNH tries to combine all of the plot elements introduced before into a universal explanation for everything that’s happened, for Beth’s past and present.  To its credit, the screenplay does tie all of the threads together, but the end result strains credulity.  The movie would have worked if Beth found out her husband was having an affair, and she had to live with the consequences of learning something she probably would rather not have known. Suicides always leave the survivors with the question of why, and TNH could have explored our tendency to rationalize the incomprehensible.  Unfortunately, TNH opts for supernatural misdirection instead of psychological drama.  Beth goes from thinking that Owen killed himself over guilt from having affairs, to believing he’s a serial killer and killed himself over that, to learning that he was trying to keep an evil presence referred to as “nothing” at bay, and killed himself as a way to keep Beth safe.

Early on, we learned that Beth “died” in a car accident.  Her heart stopped beating for four minutes.  When people ask her if she saw any signs of the afterlife, she says she saw nothing.  Ever since dying, Beth has had what she describes as “dark thoughts”.  She says Owen kept them at bay, and the movie tells us that he was doing more than being a loving and supportive husband.  Owen somehow detected the evil presence that had attached itself to Beth, studied occult rituals and devised a way to trick it so that it would leave Beth alone.  Owen’s plan involved creating a reverse replica of their house on the other side of the lake, finding women who looked like Beth, luring them into his half-finished house and killing them after they held a bizarre statue.

The multiple reveals come fast in the third act, and I didn’t fully realize what the movie was saying about Owen until thinking about it after.  Owen killed possibly six women in order to trick “nothing” into leaving Beth alone.  If I were Beth, I would have been happy with the modest  revelation that my husband was having affairs and killed himself out of grief.  I honestly don’t know how Beth lives with the knowledge that Owen became a serial killer to save her.  That level of devotion is frightening, but the movie gives Beth no time to process Owen’s actions.

TNH certainly is not the first horror movie to start out grounded in reality, only to crank up the “supernatural” dial to eleven in the third act.  Things Heard & Seen came out just four months ago, and is surprisingly similar in plot, tone and structure.  TNH also reminded me of What Lies Beneath released back in 2000.  The problem with these movies is that they don’t trust the  dramatic honesty and realism at their core, and cast aside the character-driven elements in favor of a more-or-less traditional ghost story climax and resolution.

In spite of my misgivings about how the story of TNH evolves over its 1:48 runtime, I did appreciate how it ended.  Even when being pushed to the brink by “nothing”, Beth hears her friends and chooses life instead of ending things.  I have no idea how Beth continues with her life from that point on, given that she’s likely to be dealing with the dead bodies her husband left behind for some time, and “nothing” will probably never leave her alone.  Beth still has people that care about her though, and hopefully that “something” will be enough to see her through what I’m guessing would be a challenging time ahead.

I can see why Hall agreed to star in this movie.  The role of Beth is an actor’s showcase, one where she can convey a wide range of emotions throughout the story.  Hall is completely convincing in every scene she’s in, even when the story trips over itself in the end.  I always considered her a good actress, but based on the performance she gives here, she is a great one.  Too bad the movie itself isn’t a better one, but Hall does everything she can to make it worth watching.

I was also impressed with David Bruckner’s direction.  I haven’t seen his previous movies, but I feel I should try to check them out after seeing TNH.  I appreciated how, at least in the early going, he gave scenes time to breathe a bit before scaring us with something.  I may knock how the movie wraps itself up, but the dream state parallel world scenes were eerie and disconcerting.  There’s a simple, elegant creepiness in the scene when Beth sees the dead women running through the yard, and then notices the alternative house lit up on the other side of the lake at night.

I also want to give a shout out to two of the supporting actors in the cast:  Sarah Goldberg and Vondie Curtis-Hall.  Both are convincing as Beth’s friends who care about her and want to help.  In too many horror movies, the friend characters always seem helpless to stop whatever  preordained fate that evil has in store for the protagonist.  In TNH, I felt like both characters were the main reason why Beth chose differently.

As I mentioned earlier, Hall appeared in Iron Man 3 as Maya Hansen.  To be upfront, Iron Man 3 is my least favorite Iron Man movie.  There are many reasons for my opinion, but the way it deals with Maya’s character is icky, to say the least.  Maya, a biologist,  created Extremis, a treatment that can help people recover from crippling injuries.  Tony Stark had a one night stand with her years ago, and claims he nearly solved the problems with her technology that same night.  Maya shows up at Tony’s house while Pepper is home, trying to warn Tony about bad guy Aldrich Killian.  Pepper has to deal with Tony’s playboy past in her own home.  If that isn’t humiliating enough, she is then forced to save Maya when The Mandarin blows up the home.  Maya eventually regrets helping Killian, and is killed for betraying him.  The movie is happy to save Pepper from certain death, but Maya is quickly forgotten by everyone when the movie ends.  Maya, and by extension, Hall, deserved better.

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