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The Night House Review: Sundance 2020 – /Film

the night house review

Jump scares get a bad rap, primarily because filmmakers use them in cheap ways. The worst kind of jump scare – the kind that deserves scorn – are of the fake-out variety. As in: someone opens a closet door and a cat jumps out, or a completely harmless person suddenly pops into frame and the soundtrack blares for a second. These types of jump scares can hit the bricks. But there are good jump scares. These are the ones designed to startle and shake you with genuinely scary moments, not faux distractions. David Bruckner‘s The Night House is full of several of these genuine jump scares – and boy oh boy are they effective. 

Rebecca Hall is the lead of The Night House, and thank heavens for that. Hall is one of the best actresses working right now, and she’s able to make some of the sillier elements of Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski‘s cluttered script seem mostly plausible. Hall plays Beth, a teacher who has recently lost her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit), a successful architect. Even though their marriage seemed perfectly happy, and the often depressed Beth always thought of Owen as her rock, her spouse died by suicide, and the experience has left Beth understandably unmoored.

Beth spends most nights drunkenly stumbling around the beautiful lake house Owen built for them, unable to reconcile why her husband would shoot himself. Her grief becomes compounded by a sudden belief that she’s not alone in the house. Beth is a skeptic in life after death – she was once in a car crash that left her technically dead for four minutes before being revived, and the experience has left her certain that there’s nothing awaiting us on the other side. But creepy stuff keeps happening: the radio randomly turns on at full volume, playing Beth and Owen’s wedding song; loud knocking sounds are heard; and Beth keeps having disturbing dreams, only to find herself waking up on the floor in random rooms in the house. Springing into action, Beth starts digging into Owen’s life, trying to find answers. But the more she digs, the more she realizes she might not have really known her husband at all.

The Night House wants to do a lot of things. It wants to be a compelling mystery-thriller; it wants to be a portrait of crushing, even existential grief; and it wants to scare the shit out of you. It’s mostly successful on all those fronts, primarily thanks to Hall’s performance and Bruckner’s direction. Hall perfectly nails the grieving elements of her character – she’s an emotional wreck, prone to sudden fits of furious anger and crushing sadness. Hall isn’t afraid to make Beth cold, even cruel at times. It’s a risky move, and in a lesser performer’s hands, it could’ve backfired. But Hall is such a confident, brave, risk-taking actor that it’s easy to go all-in with her.

Bruckner, who helmed The Ritual, as well as one of the best segments of VHS (“Amateur Night”), is adept at building dread. He lets the camera linger longer than it should, creating a palpable sense of unease. And he knows how to stage one hell of a jump scare. Make that jump scares – there’s one sequence midway through the film where the filmmaker packs on one genuinely scary jump scare after another, after another, after another. The construction of the scene is remarkable – just when you think things are going to let-up another jarring event occurs.

As effective as these moments are, they also tend to border on being manipulative. The score from Ben Lovett is overblown to the extreme, leaning into the type of music that feels like it’s spoon-feeding us. It almost suggests a lack of confidence in the material, which is a shame, because The Night House would work just as well with a far more subtle soundtrack.

Beth’s investigation into her potential haunting is all building towards a conclusion that doesn’t quite add up. This is the type of story that starts to fall apart the more you think about it, and the entire third act feels as if The Night House is breaking all the rules it set-up because it couldn’t think of anything better to do. This is unfortunate, but not a deal-breaking. The horror on display here is so powerful, and Hall’s work is so strong, that you’re bound to come away from The Night House properly haunted.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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