Format: Streaming video from Hulu Plus on Fire!
Is there anything in the world more frustrating in movies than a film that doesn’t live up to the promises of the first two acts and ends with a lackluster third act? That’s the situation I have with The Night House, a film that is in that rare group of stories that in places made all the hair on my arms raise up. This starts with such a great premise and builds on it, going in some truly unexpected and wonderful directions, and then ends with such a tame conclusion that I ended up wonder how it could have lost such power.
Beth (Rebecca Hall) lives alone in a house on a lake. We learn soon enough that she is recently alone and that her husband Owen (played in memories and the like by Evan Jonigkeit) took a boat out on the lake and shot himself, leaving a cryptic note. She does her best to hold things together, but her friend and coworker Claire (Sarah Goldberg) and her neighbor Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) are concerned about what has happened and the toll it is taking on her.
Initially, Beth shares their concerns, because she starts having some experiences that she can’t really explain. She hears voices that sound like her husband. She sees things out of the corner of her eye. She has dreams where it feels like she is interacting with something that isn’t quite there. And while all of this is happening and her reality is seeming to splinter, she finds a number of things she can’t explain. She discovers a number of books her husband had that seem to be on strange, occult topics. She discovers that his phone is filled with pictures of women who look like her but aren’t her. And then she finds a house in the forest that is like the one that Owen built, but in mirror image.
There’s so much potential here, and I don’t want to spoil much that happens in the second act and at the start of the third act because it’s genuinely scary. Beth continues to explore what is happening and starts becoming more and more unhinged, but we as the audience see that there might actually be something to what she is seeing. Or is there? How reliable of a narrator is Beth? How much can we trust what is being shown?
And then we get to the third act and things continue to ramp up, until they don’t and this ends ina very soft and unsatisfying way. For a film that has such a great build to something new and terrifying, we’re left with something that drops back into what feels like formula.
Despite this, there is a great deal to like with The Night House, starting with the performance of Rebecca Hall. There is something just a touch unhinged in what she brings to this role. One of the reasons the film works as well as it does for as long as it does is because of what Hall brings to it. There is a sense that she is desperate to keep things together but is concerned not simply that there is something terrible going on around her, but that there isn’t something terrible going on around her and that all of it is in her head and that her sanity is fragmenting. Virtually the entire film rises and falls on her performance, and while the supporting cast is good (particularly Vondie Curtis-Hall), the only reason this is even mildly successful is laid strictly at Hall’s feet.
Because of this, I can only begin to tell you just how disappointing the ending really is for this. There’s such potential for something new to enter into the mythology and instead, it’s essentially just another sort of haunted house story and another sort of possession story, and it feels like it references vastly inferior movies (like Mirrors) to get to where it wants to go. And worse, where it wants to go feels like a destination that we’ve been to before.
I really wanted to like The Night House and for a little more than two acts, I really did. When it climbs out of the “creepy horror film going for something deep and terrifying” and dives head first into the “jump scare/slasher/here comes the Big Bad style of filmmaking, I lose interest almost immediately.
Bluntly, this screenplay needed another run through. A small committee of experienced writers may have come up with a way to deflect the problems that happen at the end and give us something with a little more red meat.
Stick the landing on this and change the last 15 minutes or so and I’m your biggest fan, suggesting this to everyone I know. Instead, well…here we are.
Why to watch The Night House: Boy, does this go in some directions you don’t expect.
Why not to watch: The last 20 minutes don’t live up to the promise.