“The Night House”: Terror and Grief #EIFF21 Review

Year: 2020


Runtime: 108 minutes


Director: David Bruckner


Writers: Ben Collins, Luke Piotrowski


Actors: Rebecca Hall, Sarah Goldberg, Vondie Curtis-Hall

By Caz Armstrong

A horror that borders the psychological and the paranormal, this film is about grief and how much we can ever know someone.

Teacher Beth (Rebecca Hall) returns from her husband’s funeral to an empty house. It is a beautiful house by a lake in New York state, hand built by her architect husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit). Her attempts to stoically power through her grief are undermined by her nightmares. She falls asleep in strange places and feels a very real presence in the empty house.

These nightmares and strange happenings lead her to investigate her husband’s activities and beliefs, taking her down a dark and terrifying path from which she may not return.

“The Night House” Searchlight Pictures

“The Night House” (2020) is terrifying. Not because of any rubber-masked monster or any Big Baddie you could point to. There are no particular flashy special effects or gore. The film uses fairly simple tactics to incredible effect in order to put us on edge… then push us right over. At times there is zero mercy, we’re thrust into the same deep terror as Beth and given no way out.

Yes, there are jump scares, but it’s more than that. A misty night, a knock at the door, a screaming panic, and a trail of clues that mean we can’t trust what we’re seeing all make for a true edge-of-your-seat experience.

What works particularly well here is a layering of distrust. We can’t trust Beth’s experience of reality, she’s in shock and is overtired. We can’t trust her husband as we learn more about his secrets and start to suspect him of horrendous things. And we can’t trust our own perception of reality as the truth starts to become known.

“The Night House” Searchlight Pictures

One of the key themes is that of secrecy and of privacy after death. Our curiosity makes us want Beth to keep looking into her husband’s private life. To follow the clues and dig deeper. But should she? Should we let people have their secrets even after they are deceased? Perhaps so, but that doesn’t make for nearly as exciting a film.

Grief is also clearly very important. Our protagonist is caught at an incredibly raw time and acting in a way which is shocking to others. Thankfully some of the people around her are not afraid of being honest with her and talking about it.

Beth’s friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg) is a great example of a supportive friend during a period of grieving. She is unafraid to have difficult conversations, and hold Beth to account while also providing practical and emotional support. This is something society needs to get better at, not making grief a taboo but helping others to deal with it with openness and generosity.

“The Night House” Searchlight Pictures

The architectural theme is leveraged to make us consider the physical places we construct and maintain, and how they reflect us as individuals. What do we have on display and what’s hidden away? It also represents the mental and emotional spaces we construct, and how scary it can be when those spaces are invaded or unstable.

“The Night House” uses simple techniques to explore some deep themes and deliver a very scary punch. Rebecca Hall is a wonder, channelling some very raw emotions to great effect. The suspenseful plot will keep you guessing right up to the end. You just might need to sleep with the lights on for a few nights after watching this.

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