The Night House (2021)

The movie is just alright, but Rebecca Hall is great: a tale as old as time.  I always hear that Hall is a powerhouse performer, but I’m used to seeing her play low-key, anonymous roles in genre movies like The Gift, Transcendence, and Godzilla vs Kong, where she tends to support instead of outshine the ooky-spooky monsters & ghouls at centerstage.  That likely says more about me than it says about Hall, though, since her fan-favorite performance as the titular role in the 2016 biopic Christine is widely available and I’ve yet to make time for it.  Luckily, The Night House is willing to meet me halfway by casting Rebecca Hall as the dramatic lead in a straight-forward horror film about a haunted house, wherein she’s the central focus of every single scene.  The movie itself is just okay, but her performance is fantastic, so I at least appreciated that it dragged me kicking and screaming into the Rebecca Hall fan club.

Viewed purely as a haunted-house movie, The Night House is only so-so.  It’s overloaded with exciting ideas, teasing tangents of Lovecraftian blueprints for a dark-magic home, silhouettes of ghosts formed by the negative space in architectural details, erotic foreplay with said negative-space ghosts, and a cursed netherworld that can only be accessed through lucid dreams.  Unfortunately, it’s frustratingly restrained in its execution of its most out-there concepts, only indulging in each for mere seconds before dragging the audience back to the dramatic reality they disrupt.  That dramatic core is yet another It’s Actually About Grief metaphor that has become so standard in modern horror, with Rebecca Hall being both physically & emotionally haunted by her recent suicide-victim husband.  In a decade, academics will have something smart & concise to say about why so many of our contemporary horror films are so fixated on the subject of grief, just as we’ve since explained away the early-aughts’ obsession with onscreen torture as a way to process American war crimes during the War on Terror.  In the meantime, there’s very little room for individual entries in the Grief Horror canon to have anything novel to say on the subject, so all The Night House can really do is create a spooky mood while repeating images & concepts you’ve already been exposed to many times before.  It is spooky, but I question if that’s enough of a draw considering how familiar its themes are.

The Night House is much more impressive as a showcase for Rebecca Hall’s screen presence, encouraging to flex her acting muscles in the same way the Grief Horror genre has already spotlighted Toni Collette in Hereditary, Elizabeth Moss in The Invisible Man, and Essie Davis in The Babadook.  Hall plays a wonderfully prickly, sardonic widow who refuses to wallow in the aftermath of her husband’s suicide, instead choosing to prod at who he was and why he decided to stop being.  She’s haunted both by the gun violence that ended his life—often finding herself hearing, touching, and Googling guns whenever her mind drifts—and by a spiritual presence in her now empty home, seemingly rekindling their doomed romance from beyond the grave.  Weirdly, the movie often excels most when it’s not indulging in supernatural phenomena at all, chronicling Hall’s investigation into her husband’s secretive life outside their marriage and her wonderfully icy responses to the polite but condescending rituals of communal consolation that accompany all funerals.  She’s hurt, she’s hurtful, and she’s fiercely opposed to the idea of fading away quietly after her marriage’s violent end, despite that feeling like the only path offered in her empty, cursed home.  The movie asks a lot of Rebecca Hall as its emotional anchor, and she holds it all down with ease.  It’s just a shame the movie around her couldn’t quite match her virtuoso performance with something memorable enough to make it a must-see entry in its genre.

-Brandon Ledet

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