Although I had encountered and enjoyed the work of director David Bruckner several times before—he directed segments in the great horror anthology films The Signal, V/H/S, and Southbound, and helmed the excellent 2017 film The Ritual, which was based on the novel by Adam Nevill—I hadn’t actually heard about his movie The Night House until I saw it nominated in several categories on the 2022 Fangoria Chainsaw Awards show on Shudder (the film actually made the festival circuit back in 2020, but didn’t get a wider release until late summer of 2021). Since it looked like a creepy, haunted house type movie and starred Rebecca Hall, who I’ve always really liked, I decided to give it a whirl.
Working from a screenplay by his usual writing collaborators Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (also responsible for the 2017 film Super Dark Times), Bruckner infuses The Night House with unsettling atmosphere for days, unfolding a supernatural mystery that kept me completely invested from the get-go. I have to say too that Rebecca Hall’s performance here is incredible, raw and nuanced and amazingly real, and she absolutely elevates this eerie, low-key ghost story into something really special.
Hall plays Beth, a high school teacher whose architect husband Owen has committed suicide only a few days before by blowing his own brains out in a rowboat on the lake alongside their house. Beth is clearly distraught, confused and angry and unsure what to do with herself; though school has just let out for the summer, she goes back to work to turn in her grades, and the way everyone looks at her handily conveys the fact that they all think she’s returning too soon. Her friend and fellow teacher Claire is worried and tells her so, but Beth insists that she needs to be doing something normal to take her mind off things. A fraught conversation she has later with a disgruntled parent demonstrates that she’s clearly not all that okay, though.
Probably not helping her mental state is the lake house itself, where she is still living for the time being, though she tells her friend and neighbor Mel that she’s considering selling it. The house was designed and built by her husband, and still bears traces of him all over it; it’s also a little bit isolated and lonely, with the rowboat where he died still bumping softly against the dock. Beth spends several nights after Owen’s funeral drinking herself into oblivion while watching videos of him in happier times.
Very slowly, however, weird little things start happening in and around the lake house. She hears what could possibly be a phantom gunshot echoing across the lake. She sees muddy, bare footprints on the dock that are gone a little while later. The stereo turns itself on, playing a sad, significant song called “The Calvary Cross.” Beth begins having bizarre dreams and seems to sleepwalk, sometimes waking up on the floor of the bathroom or in her husband’s office.
During one of these supposed dreams, Beth receives a text message from Owen’s phone, telling her not to be afraid and to come downstairs. It all seems so real, but the next morning, the text messages are gone from her phone. Still not convinced that it was all a dream, though, Beth digs into the police evidence box to find Owen’s phone, discovering that there are no creepy text messages there, either.
But as she’s going through Owen’s phone, she comes across a strange photo of a woman in a bookstore. It’s been taken from a bit of a distance and almost from the back; at first, Beth thinks it’s a candid shot Owen took of her, but as she looks closer, she realizes it’s another woman who only resembles her. She tells her friend Claire about this, but Claire begs her to let the whole thing go; even if the photo isn’t of her, then what good will it do to dredge up the secrets of a dead man? Just remember the Owen you loved and move on with your life, Claire suggests.
Beth can’t let it rest, though. Not only is she filled with grief and rage at Owen for leaving her with no explanation, she’s also tormented by the terse and cryptic suicide note he left her. As she investigates further, she finds even more mysterious photos of women who sort of look like her, as well as some disquieting books about the occult that Owen made notes in. Also, there’s the small matter of some architectural plans for a house that’s an exact mirror image of the one she and Owen were living in. The dreams and sleepwalking continue, and Beth thinks she actually sees this reversed house on the opposite side of the lake.
What exactly was Owen up to, and why did he take his own life when Beth had absolutely no idea he was even considering it? Is Owen haunting the house in order to tell Beth his reasons, or is there something far more sinister going on? The mystery deepens, getting thornier and murkier, perhaps somehow linking back with a past event that Beth relates to Claire, about a near death experience she had when she was a teenager.
This was an outstanding, slow-burn, supernatural thriller with a complex and fascinating mystery at its heart. There were very few jump scares, but it just drips with creepy atmosphere, and I really loved the way the presence of the supernatural was delineated by creepy human silhouettes appearing in the architectural details of the house itself. If you’re looking for something gory or super fast-paced, then look elsewhere, but if you really want to immerse yourself in a haunting, thoughtful, puzzle-box ghost story with a fantastic central performance, then definitely step into The Night House.
Until next time, keep it creepy my friends.