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In recent years, haunted houses have become an easy way to depict grief on screen. As an example, Netflix has dipped into this well multiple times: The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and His House have all used ghosts and creepy homes as metaphors for psychological turmoil. It is a smart trick, since those without recent grief can be loath to discuss it, and genre trappings make the topic more palatable. The Night House continues in that tradition and makes it more explicit: It is immediately about grief and loss, and the protagonist is always self-aware. Because it is a horror film, it is also occasionally creepy and prone to jarring noises, but it’s astute. There is more empathy and depth than the genre typically requires.
The first few minutes unfold in virtual silence. Director David Bruckner films inside the house; we see Beth (Rebecca Hall) having a conversation with an older woman, but we can barely hear them. Beth is dressed in all black, and the older woman hands her a casserole. We are pretty sure she’s just gotten home from her husband Owen’s funeral, and one flourish confirms it: She throws the casserole in the trash. Beth is a schoolteacher who goes through the motions of her job, except her mind is obviously elsewhere. She has friends and neighbors who care for her, but she is so despondent and disconnected that she cannot really engage. Of course, it doesn’t help that Owen haunts the gorgeous lakeside house where she lives. Beth quickly suspects Owen’s spirit has some unfinished business, so she looks into his private life. It turns out there is a lot she did not know about.
Owen died suddenly and unexpectedly by suicide, so there is rage and confusion mixed in with Beth’s grief. Hall is the right actor for this material: She has a nervy energy and a way of looking through other actors, appalled that they cannot see how she feels. Beth hides and nurses her grief—she feels it is hers alone, something she tends like a garden—and Hall finds emotional realism that makes the supernatural horror all the more convincing. The climax ends as it must, with Beth reckoning with her grief in a more open way, and the early tension lays the groundwork for the outward emotional release. Along with screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, Bruckner pays more attention to Beth than the house that haunts her. In a weird way, that makes the scares all the more effective. The film’s success as a character-driven drama obscures that it also wants to scare us.
Her psychology dovetails cleanly with The Night House’s visual language. Bruckner and his editor, David Marks, are deliberate about whether the camera acts like an objective or subjective observer. They need to be careful about that line because, well, it is scary to not know what version of reality we are seeing. Early in the film, there is a lengthy dialogue scene where Beth gets drunk with her colleagues, and the camera pushes on her face once she gets home and gradually falls asleep. The scene becomes a literal nightmare in an instant, ensuring the audience is never quite comfortable with what we see. Unlike many other haunted house films, the nature of the supernatural entity is difficult to pin down. Beth thinks she communes with Owen’s soul, except that is not quite right. The true nature of what she experiences is more disturbing and existential than that.
Not everything in this film is a success. There is a subplot involving Owen’s extracurricular activities that leaves more questions than answers, and Beth does not contend with them in a plausible way. Putting that aside, the fallout from Beth’s grief is where The Night House truly succeeds. Every person in a relationship must wonder whether they truly know their partner, and the ghosts in this film make that poignantly literal.
It is a common trope in haunted house films to have the protagonist question their reality, to have the supporting characters tell them they are crazy. The Night House has a clever inversion of that trope, a final image that might be worth the price of admission. Beth looks at something, convinced of its exact nature, but it is elusive enough that the viewer may not necessarily see what she does. This image will cause arguments among friends and loved ones who watch this film together. It takes nerve to end a film like this, and while the audience may not have a clean answer, Beth has hers.
The Night House is in theaters starting Aug. 20.