Review: ‘The Night House’ (L’appel du vide)

I always feel like… somebody’s watching me.

Beth (Rebecca Hall) has been having trouble sleeping ever since her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) took his own life. Still residing in the lakeside house Owen designed and built for them, Beth begins to discover secrets she never knew about her husband of fourteen years. Both her co-worker Claire (Sarah Goldberg) and her neighbor Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) are worried, both warning Beth away from reading into random unrelated clues: photos of other women on Owen’s phone who look like Beth, research into some sort of spiritual cult, and a mysterious presence that comes to her in dreams… who might be her husband reaching out to her from beyond the grave. As Beth is drawn deeper into darkness and consumed by suspicion, she comes to realize her paranoia isn’t just her imagination… and it never has been.

Written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski with David Bruckner directing, these three have worked together before and will again in the future; more on that later. Their stock and trade appears to be paranormal thrillers… and something to do with carpentry. At its core, however, lies the subject of depression, from what drives it to where it those who suffer can end up. The main character suffers from a survivor’s guilt, saddled with the notion her own suicidal thoughts inexplicably infected her husband, the rock of strength she leaned fully upon until he mysteriously succumbed himself. As a reasonable intelligent woman abruptly alone and ignored by former confidants, is everything she experiences just in her head, or is there really a sinister explanation for what’s been happening?

Rebecca Hall sells every moment she’s on the screen, which is nearly the entire running time. Like most stories that adhere to the tenets of a good ghost story, at some point the scares give way to clarity, meaning the main character is required to overcome their situation (read: drama) or fail spectacularly (horror). The screenwriters seed their story carefully, crafting the moment when it becomes not only who has done what and why, but setting up our protagonist to make the conscious decision to overcome or concede to “the call of the void.” With a bit of It Follows, a dash of The Babadook, and a hint of The Entity, herein lies a thriller that dares to personify depression itself, giving form to concept that isn’t just a metaphor.

The smartest script decision made was in maintaining the idea that, while there are external events in play and physical evidence, the story itself is very personal if not thoroughly intimate. Whether the third act is just as imaginary to a sleepwalker or a simply the stage where the action is set, the knowledge imparted to Beth includes facts she has no prior knowledge of; draw your own conclusions from that. Making the final discovery revealing the kind of man her husband actually was and what he was capable of traps her between worlds: the material world and her own dreamscape. Which is scarier depends on the individual, forcing the main character to confront that choice: whether or not to continue the struggle. There’s a moment near the end when it looks as if the director considered not showing us Beth’s choice — taking the lazy art house/awards bait ending — but he instead chooses to give us a proper conclusion.

A less-convincing lead actor could have sunk an otherwise solid story, but Hall elevates the material by selling her conflict and making viewers believe it, smoothing over the bumpiest moments. The last film embracing a story about depression this effectively was Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, and while Kirsten Dunst’s performance worked for that, she wasn’t afforded the grounded-yet-literal opportunity Rebecca Hall was given… and no, don’t even bring up First Reformed, thank you very much. Interestingly, the writers and director are currently in production of a reboot of Hellraiser, and while many wish they wouldn’t, with the right script and cast, these folks may be the one to pull it off — with Clive Barker’s blessing, of course.

The Night House is rated R for some violence/disturbing images, language including some sexual references, and a healthy understanding of the phenomenon Pareidolia.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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