The Night House is a tremendously unnerving and tense-filled thriller before eventually becomes that pesky houseguest who overstays their welcome.
There’s a sweet spot thrillers hit where its well developed chills and scares have reached their apex and it’s time to wrap things up. The Night House misses that mark and plays out for another 30 minutes of diminishing returns.
Beth (Rebecca Hall, Godzilla v Kong) is struggling to cope with her husband, Owen’s (Evan Jonigkeit, X-Men: Days of Future Past) shocking death. The picturesque house he built for her overlooking a lake suddenly feels like a tomb and reminder of happier times.
Trying to find some place of normalcy, Beth returns to her teaching job to wrap up the school year. It’s still too much though as her interactions in parent/teacher meetings or hanging out after hours with her fellow teachers end in very awkward and uncomfortable exchanges.
That’s normal. Hearing random phantom noises at night and the occasional muddy footprint from the dock is not. At first, Beth writes off these weird instances as carryovers from some disturbing dreams, but she starts to wonder if there’s some connection to Owen’s death. As she starts to dig deeper, Beth goes down a rabbit hole she might have wished she hadn’t uncovered with some potentially dark secrets coming to light about Owen.
At least Beth can rely on her best friend, Claire (Sarah Goldberg, The Dark Knight Rises), to be a listening and non-judgmental ear. Thankfully through the various twists and turns of the film, there’s no dark secret involving Claire. Another reliable presence is Beth’s neighbor, Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall, Romeo + Juliet), who kindly shares his concern for her wellbeing.
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Screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (Super Dark Times) do a solid job of building the intrigue and the mystery giving Beth more than enough reasons to become increasingly suspicious of Owen’s actions. Was he having an affair with the cute employee (Stacy Martin) at the bookstore? What’s the deal with that bizarre sculpt Beth finds? And why is there an almost exact replica of their house out in the woods?
There’s some big questions here and Director David Bruckner (The Ritual) masterfully sets the tension and creepiness. Bruckner utilizes a few jump scares, but not to the point of excess where they lose their effectiveness. As Beth starts hearing a voice echoing through the distance and maybe even feeling a presence guiding her along the way, Bruckner doesn’t let the unexplainable paranormal activity take away the more human aspects of the film.
Hall gives an amazing performance as a widower on edge coping with the loss of a husband she might not have really known at all. It’s one of the best performances so far this year. She sells the toll of exhaustion from consistently terrible sleep with jittery glances and moving as if encased in a shell about to pop at any moment. Just as important, Hall gives Beth enough apprehension, crippling grief and desire for some answers to make her more questionable actions justifiable.
The supporting cast isn’t massive and that allows Hall to have more meaningful scenes with Goldberg, Curtis-Hall and Martin. These are well done interactions with layers and genuine emotion coming out from authentic sounding characters.
All of that patient and dutiful build up goes awry with the final act. This is when the bill is due on all of that supernatural setup. To make that payoff work the major reveal has to have the necessary impact. Night House’s big moment feels too understated and underwhelming to warrant the extended build.
There was a more satisfying and fitting conclusion that would have worked just fine. Collins and Piotrowski complicate it to justify a character’s actions that just make them look far worse and doesn’t benefit the plot at all. Bruckner also seems to leave the conclusion somewhat open-ended as if to leave the door open for a sequel, but that lackluster finale ensures one trip to the Night House was plenty.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Searchlight Pictures