The Night House

We were looking for something a bit scary and spooky among new releases.  I was curious about Coming Home in the Dark, the well-reviewed horror thriller out of New Zealand, but it looked just a bit too horrible, having been mentioned by one critic in the same breath as Michael Haneke’s terrifyingly sadistic Funny Games from 1997, one of the few films I found so upsetting I wish I hadn’t seen it.  So we opted for The Night House, which Roger Ebert called ‘a must-see …. one of the better genre pics of 2021.’ 

Rebecca Hall plays central character Beth, a teacher recently widowed by the apparent suicide of her designer/builder husband Owen, played (in flashback) by newcomer Evan Jonigkeit.  Beth is baffled and traumatised by an event for which there were no warnings: no mental illness, no marital problems, nothing to suggest he was contemplating ending it all.

In fact they had recently moved into the beautiful lakeside house he’d built with his own hands, which looks in flashback to have been a labour of love and a sign of optimism about their shared future.  It’s from here that he took their little dinghy out on the lake one night and shot himself in the head, as she testily explains to the mother of one of her pupils. 

Why did he do it?  Left alone in the house and at an emotional loss, Beth starts a desultory search for answers by digging around in in their still-unpacked belongings and in Owen’s notebooks and plans. 

From here, tension and spookiness start to build satisfactorily.  Things go bump in the night, things go creak in the night.  The digital radio comes on unexpectedly, Beth starts having weird nightmares and finds herself waking up on the floor instead of in her bed.  She finds strange and puzzling references in Owen’s notes, then a text arrives from his phone….

The trouble with The Night House is that it’s better at building tension than at resolving it.  The early jump scares are well timed, but later on there’s just too much happening:  it’s as though the filmmakers have thrown in every element they could think of that might belong in a ghostly horror movie:  arcane texts, hidden bodies, moving shadows, voodoo dolls, disappearing footprints, mirror-imaging, doppelgangers, vanishing visions, near-death experience…. 

Towards the end, any suspenseful anticipation is crushed under the weight of a plot so crowded, convoluted and fast-moving that you’re too busy trying to work out what the hell’s happening to be scared.  It’s a pity, because some of the special effects are very good – in particular the use of interior light and shade to suggest living human shadows.  If the plot devices had been pared down to just a few – the shadows, the mirror house and the eerie lookalikes, say – the film would have been a more effective frightener.  As it was, Louise and I had to compare notes afterwards on what we’d noticed that might explain the ending.

I also puzzled a bit over whether there was any plot significance to Beth’s sometimes bad behaviour.   She’s unapologetically rude to the woman who queries her child’s grades, and when a caring friend brings round a casserole she dumps it straight in the bin and opens a bottle of wine instead.  Fair enough, she’s traumatised and not hungry, but wouldn’t the friend want the baking dish back? 

Are horror ‘victims’ supposed to be a bit unsympathetic so we can detach a bit from their sufferings?  Or am I just being picky and over-sensitive?  Whatever, I didn’t care too much about Beth’s ordeal in the end.