A longtime staple of the horror genre, the haunted house movie has been done ad nauseum. From low-budget chillers to big budget extravaganzas, filmmakers have stretched imaginable scares in a variety of ways. But 2021 has shown that with a bit of inventiveness, there’s still plenty of scares to mortgage from the sub-genre. The Deep House, for instance, took most of the familiar tropes and put them under water to great effect. And David Bruckner’s The Night House impressed most critics with a limited release in the latter half of the year.
A week ago high school teacher Beth lost her husband, Owen. Despite their seemingly happy life together, Owen inexplicably took his own life. Now she spends her nights alone in their lake house sifting through his phone and old photographs. But when Beth finds a photo of young woman who bares a striking resemblance to her on Owen’s phone, she falls down a rabbit hole of mystery. She raises more suspicions when she inadvertently finds a partially built replica of their lake house in the woods. As a ghostly presence increasingly haunts her, Beth grows desperate to solve the mystery of the ‘night house’.
The Night House Re-Models New Scares out of an Old Formula
At face value, The Night House looks like just another haunted house movie. Director David Bruckner (The Ritual) and writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (Super Dark Times, Stephanie) borrow a few subgenre tropes. But The Night House consistently does something more with what one expects. First and foremost, Bruckner invests more time developing atmosphere and mood than leaning on jump scares. Certainly, there’s still scares to be found in The Night House. What’s particularly impressive is the various ways in which Bruckner makes those scares. Foregoing CGI effects for the most part, Bruckner relies on clever editing, lighting, and camera tricks to conjure up his haunts.
The combination of the movie’s supernatural mythology and Bruckner’s use of lighting culminates in a climax that puts you on the edge of your seat.
One of the movie’s standout scenes – wherein Beth sees visions of her dead husband’s misdeeds – uses nothing more than editing and practical effects to force you to catch your breath while trying to unravel the story. And the movie’s twist genuinely shocks. Bruckner et al earn the twist with smart storytelling. Moreover, it’s a twist that forces you to re-evaluate everything you’ve seen up to that point. The combination of the movie’s supernatural mythology and Bruckner’s use of lighting culminates in a climax that puts you on the edge your seat. What’s most impressive about The Night House’s finale is that the suspense emerges from invested emotions rather than grandiose effects.
The Night House Defies Expectations Courtesy of a Smart Screenplay and Rebecca Hall’s Commanding Performance
If The Night House was simply an inventive update of familiar tropes it would still be a damn good horror movie. But Collins and Piotrowski’s screenplay subverts familiar tropes in ways that take the story in refreshing directions. We’ve all seen the haunted house movie where a protagonist uncovers a deceased loved one’s secret life. Time and time again, these same movies reveal a dark past that comes back to haunt our hero. Initially, The Night House feels like its taking those same narrative routes. Beth investigates, discovers dark rituals, her husband’s dark secrets, and all feels like it’s pointing to an all too familiar conclusion. But Collin and Piotrowski introduce a twist that their story earns. It’s a refreshing direction and one that adds weight to the movie’s themes.
But Collins and Piotrowski’s screenplay subverts familiar tropes in ways that take the story in refreshing directions.
And The Night House is more than just a haunted house movie. It’s an exploration of grief and loss, love, and the sacrifices we make for those we love. Everything about the movie – its pacing, atmosphere, approach to story-telling – enhance these themes. Above all else, Rebecca Hall’s (Godzilla vs Kong) makes everything about the movie work just a little better. What’s most interesting about her performance is that she shows her character’s strength in obvious grief. There’s incredible range to the performance – we can feel her heartbreak and confusion, but Hall’s ‘Beth’ is always resolute. She possesses an attitude and conviction that make her emotionally complex and real.
The Night House Builds a Better Haunted House Movie
Do you really know the people I love? What would you do to save someone close to your heart? On one hand, The Night House is a tightly paced, atmospheric haunted house movie buoyed by a strong leading performance. Brunker shows you can conjure up scares without expensive CGI effects. Yet The Ghost House successfully reaches beyond standard haunted house tropes. This is a fully realized emotional drama that also happens to be a supernatural horror movie. Both innovative storytelling and filmmaking prove that old formulas can be re-packaged in new ideas.