Producers: David S. Goyer, Keith Levine and John Zois Director: David Bruckner Screenplay: Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski Cast: Rebecca Hall, Sarah Goldberg, Vondie Curtis Hall, Evan Jonigkeit, Stacy Martin, David Abeles, Christina Jackson and Patrick Klein Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
Rebecca Hall delivers a tour de force performance, and director David Bruckner—in collaboration with cinematographer Elisha Christian, editor David Marks composer Ben Lovett and the sound design team—delivers some genuine chills and quick shocks in the supernatural thriller “The Night House,” but they’re let down by a muddled script from Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski. The result is a film that holds one’s interest over most of its overlong running-time, but in the end comes across as murky and unsatisfying.
Hall plays Beth, a teacher in upstate New York devastated by the suicide of her architect husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit); he shot himself in a rowboat on the lake beside the gorgeous modernist house he’d built for them in the dense forest. Despite support from Claire (Sarah Goldberg), her colleague at work, and Mel (Vondie Curtis Hall), her avuncular neighbor, Beth’s trauma is worsening.
So when her sleep is shattered by the proverbial bumps in the night, and by the stereo suddenly blaring out music before abruptly turning off again, Beth believes, not without justification, that ghostly goings-on are afoot. Strange apparitions—some not explicable by reflections in the windows that are a major part of the place (the primary contribution of production designer Kathrin Eder, and an effective one)—reaffirm that conclusion, as do the muffled messages she starts getting, ostensibly from Owen’s cellphone.
When, increasingly unnerved, she shares her fears with fellow teachers during an after-school bar session, she dismisses the rationalizations of skeptics like Gary (David Abeles) and becomes increasingly determined to find out what’s happening. She begins investigating what was behind her husband’s suicide, and in going through his phone records and books, discovers some unsettling facts. Owen was apparently involved with a series of women who were close duplicates of her. He was also dabbling in the occult, as a weird statue of a woman pierced with spears all too clearly proves. He had also built an unfinished copy of their house across the lake, where both those secret activities converged. Beth manages to track down one of the other women, Madelyne (Stacy Martin) at a Utica bookstore, but the conversation with her only deepens the mystery, and it seems from a grisly turn at that second house that the others will be much less communicative.
When the inevitable last-act revelations come, they’re less explanations than invitations to a show of visual effects, with lights and mirrors ablaze, spectral visions occurring (and speaking in muffled tones seemingly designed to keep their words obscured), and Hall going through the sorts of physical contortions that have become pretty much ho-hum staples in today’s horror flicks. In the end she’s drawn to repeating her husband’s decision.
“The Night House” is efficiently made for the most part. The shocks are cunningly staged, and the loud noises in particular will cause viewers to jump in their seats. Still, one is constantly aware of weaknesses in the plotting, and though Hall conveys Beth’s puzzled grief expertly, her efforts won’t stop you from posing nagging questions. Why, for instance, when the stereo starts acting up, doesn’t she simply unplug it? What precisely is the connection between the strange suicide note Owen left behind and a near-death experience from her past? Are the shrieking figures that rush past the house and jump over a cliff real or imaginary? What’s the significance of the two moons that appear in the sky over the lake, other than to suggest that two realms—the human and the demonic—are coming together?
One can fit all these elements into a plausible solution to the puzzle the movie poses, but that feels like expending a good deal of work on a project that’s not really worth the effort. You can appreciate Bruckner’s skill in assembling a barrage of well-worn horror tropes to generate some efficient jolts and shivers, but ultimately the payoff is modest.