Early in The Night House, schoolteacher Beth (Rebecca Hall) is glumly catching up on admin when a parent (Samantha Buck) warily intrudes, intent on gently blackmailing her into upgrading her son’s C for an incomplete assignment up by mentioning that Beth was absent the day the assignment came in. After a few minutes of tactful, wary deflection, the brittle Beth comes out and tells the woman that last Thursday her husband shot himself in the head with a gun she didn’t even know they owned and as far as she’s concerned the kid can have an A. It’s a great, unsettling, horribly funny little scene, played by Hall with the kind of mixed emotions, including a little sadism paying back the world for her own sufferings, she’s a master of. A high-powered character actress (now also director), Hall – like her Godzilla vs Kong co-star Vera Farmiga – often makes interesting choices in horror. Possibly the genre offers more dramatic meat to chew than other gigs (like token showings in Iron Man Three or Holmes & Watson), but Hall’s powerful range – suited to showcase indies like Christine — is apparent from her work in The Awakening, The Gift and now this ghost/mystery item from director David Bruckner (The Ritual) and screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (Super Dark Times), the team currently working on a Hellraiser reboot.
Beth’s husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit), an architect, has built them a subliminally creepy but lavish home on an isolated lakeshore, which she now wants to sell since he went out on the lake to kill himself. While coping with grief, guilt, frustration and fury, Beth starts getting a sense of being haunted – not only by Owen but other presences, some of which go back to her own near-death experience and which she thinks might have troubled her husband too. She also keeps stumbling over clues – a photograph on Owen’s phone that looks like her but isn’t, leading her to discover a cache of images that suggest he was involved with a series of lookalikes for his wife … and also a skeletal house in the woods on the opposite shore to their home, which is a mirror image of her own home and the site of dark, dangerous doings (plus a disturbing but of folk art that looks like a misogynist’s voodoo doll). Various folks – kindly neighbour Vondie Curtis-Hall, mystery woman bookstore clerk Stacy Martin – contribute information which makes Beth radically reassess her relationship with Owen, but it slowly emerges that the picture is even more strange and sinister than her womanising/serial-killing imaginings.
There’s a touch of Us in the slightly hard-to-follow rationale for the supernatural element – and it might stand as a plea for suicides to be less enigmatic in their final notes (‘Nothing is after you’ presupposes a lot, especially if there is an evil entity about who likes to be called ‘Nothing’). A sequence where Beth is embraced and nearly throttled by an invisible presence is subtler and more impressive than the mauling of Barbara Hershey (whom Rebecca Hall looks a lot like) in The Entity. Collins and Piotrowski do better by character than plot, which is fair enough since overexplanation is a curse of the ghost story – much more powerful than the sleuthing is the thread about the way Beth’s best friend (Sarah Goldberg, excellent) sticks by her even when (and maybe because) she’s at her most difficult to deal with. This also sets up one of the film’s most effective shock scares, a lost time moment when Beth goes from securely snuggled with a friend who’s offered to stay with her till she sleeps to being jolted awake by a loud noise as she’s alone in the dark.