David Bruckner’s “The Night House,” now streaming on HBO Max, is a horror film that is not afraid to delve into the ambiguity and tragedy of death. Rather than depending on buckets of fake blood and CGI-rendered monsters, the movie relies on the performance of its lead actor and masterful cinematography to convey the hopelessness and dread that accompany grief. Throughout its 110-minute runtime, “The Night House” perfectly captures the terror of solitude and is not afraid to explore how loss is often a catalyst for our worst fears. Although the film struggles to maintain its narrative coherence in its third act, the unnerving nature of the movie’s performances, soundtrack, and camerawork create an ominous atmosphere that any horror fan will love.
“The Night House” opens in the aftermath of tragedy: Beth (Rebecca Hall), a nihilistic high school teacher, loses her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) to suicide. All that he leaves behind is a cryptic note that reads “You were right. There is nothing. Nothing is after you. You’re safe now,” which Beth interprets as a reference to their previous disagreements about life after death. With no understanding as to why this tragedy occurred, Beth retreats into the isolation of her lakehouse, obsessing over old home movies while being haunted by nightmares about her husband. While her grief and paranoia consume her, she discovers more artifacts that challenge her preexisting notions about her husband, such as his collection of occult books, blueprints of a reversed version of their house, and photographs of women who bear a striking resemblance to Beth. As Beth begins to investigate her husband’s secret life, she begins to be plagued by a ghostly apparition known only as “The Nothing” that occupies negative space. By the third act, it becomes clear that Owen’s motivations were to protect Beth from this demonic presence, but at this point, even the audience becomes unaware of whether or not the shadows and silhouettes dancing across the screen are really a supernatural entity.
Anchored by Hall’s realistic portrayal of grief, the film successfully captures the terrifying and heartbreaking nature of losing someone you love. As she discovers this previously unseen side of her husband, Beth’s emotions are an amalgam of sadness, anger, antipathy, confusion, and even sardonicism. Hall’s performance emphasizes one of the most poignant horrors of this movie: we may never be able to understand the true nature of those we love. Although the film revels in unsettling imagery, this sense of loss proves to be the most terrifying and emotional element of this film for me.
It is not only the plot of “The Night House” that deals with loss and emptiness, but also the film’s cinematography. Rather than using dramatic special effects to portray the spectral apparition haunting Beth, the movie relies on negative space to present the incorporeal being lurking in the lake house. This creative mise-en-scene results in a unique horror experience. For example, I never expected that the outline of a bookshelf would suddenly resemble the silhouette of a person, or that an empty sky would transform into a malevolent face. Not only does this presentation convey horror in a very realistic way, but it also helps develop many of the film’s central themes. The literal embodiment of loss becomes the very thing tormenting Beth as she struggles to understand the reality of the world around her. This creative cinematography transforms what is already a scary ghost story into something truly unforgettable.
For all its strengths, however, the film does have some shortcomings. Although it succeeds in presenting Beth’s grief and confusion about her situation, the lack of narrative coherence, especially in the third act, when the antagonist of “The Nothing” is revealed, hinders the movie as a whole. The film is left awkwardly balancing exposition and the audience’s confusion, much like the negative space the film utilizes so frequently. The movie’s explanation for Owen’s motivations is ultimately disappointing; it failed to mirror the dread that had been building throughout the film, and Owen’s elaborate plans to try and save his wife only revealed numerous inconsistencies that left me scratching my head as the film’s credits rolled. At times, it seems that “The Night House” employs spooky imagery merely for the sake of horror, rather than plot development.
While the film certainly suffers from these plot holes and contrivances, it makes up for them with its effective cultivation of an ominous atmosphere and mounting tension. “The Night House” is a horror movie that is able to find the terror inherent in emptiness. Whether that be an empty house, the lack of empathy from others, or the loss of a loved one, the film utilizes these universal feelings to create an unforgettable horror movie. Its minimalist style, grounded by Hall's incredible lead performance, creates a cinematic experience capable of scaring even the most veteran fan, without relying on obnoxious jump scares or gratuitous gore. “The Night House” successfully combines style and substance, immersing the audience within the unimaginable terror that only grief can bring.