The Night House (2020) ** – Seen at the Cinema

An overloaded atmosphere cannot make up for the lack of directorial killer instinct, resulting in a ghost story that leans more towards the preposterous than horror.  Beth (Rebecca Hall), dealing with the suicide of her husband, begins to imagine a ghostly  presence in her remote house on a lake. Left a very odd suicide note, she pieces together stranger aspects of his life, involving the occult and a photo on his phone of a Beth lookalike.

The picture divides very neatly into the entirely believable grief of schoolteacher Beth – she nips at a moaning parent, knocks back the brandy, makes inappropriate comments to her workmates and displays sufficient off-the-wall tendencies to alarm pal Claire (Sarah Goldberg) – and the various tropes that need to be knitted together to take the story into the ghost/horror realm, few of which work. Mysterious footsteps, sometime muddy, sometimes bloody, appear, harmless neighbour Mel (Vondie Hall Curtis) is presented as potentially malevolent, and music suddenly blares out in the middle of the night.

Had the story remained entrenched in Beth’s imagination, where she almost willed her husband either to be still alive or enough of a presence (as in Ghost, 1990) that she could touch or be comforted by, and gradually either became subsumed by grief or came out of it, it might have worked very well. But the minute it started to delve into the area of the unbelievable it became largely unbelievable. Even when it is obvious her husband is not at all what he once seemed, the picture just ignores the obvious.

And that is a shame. Even more so than Stillwater, reviewed last week, this is a thespian tour-de-force. Beth is scarcely off the screen and her ever-changing mood displays terrific acting skills. But just like Stillwater, it loses its way, going for plot instead of character, and the film cannot make up its mind whether she is going mad, or just mad with grief, or whether she is victim to unseen predator. There was only one genuine jump-out-of-your-seat shock and the introduction late on of elements of her backstory served to confuse rather than elucidate.

Rebecca Hall (Godzilla vs. Kong, 2021) can certainly hold the screen and hopefully this will lead to better roles in bigger films. None of the other actors are particularly noteworthy. Director David Bruckner (Netflix’s The Ritual, 2017) seems to be focusing on horror – Hellraiser is next – but whether he needs a bigger budget or a better script to scare the pants off an audience remains to be seen. Writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (Stephanie, 2017) also appear to be specialising in this genre.