It’s becoming a very real source of consternation that since acquiring 20th Century Fox, Disney has been terribly fumbling the releases of some of the best horror and fantasy terror films to have emerged in the past 16 months. First it was The Empty Man (now on HBO Max, and don’t you hesitate to check it out), and now it's David Bruckner’s The Night House. Both of these films are difficult sells that yield expansive terror that shreds their current competition, and both of them are R-rated films that slip into the back alleys of the brain and futz around with your emotions. Granted, it’s hard to figure out exactly what audiences bounced about by pandemic anxiety, leavened with vaccine liberation and then Delta Delta damn are looking for. But I’m finding myself continually blown away by amazing cinema in desperate search of an audience.
The most effective horror of the COVID era is particularly good at exploring liminal states wherein the barriers between alive and dead are extra fuzzy (meaning unclear, not fluffy). Isolation and alienation are the axes where everyone is mapping their own lives on a daily basis, trying to figure out what you can give. And Beth (Rebecca Hall, a mark of quality in genre cinema — see also The Awakening, Iron Man Three and The Prestige) is trying to pull out of the chaos following the tragic death of her husband Owen. The dreams aren’t helping, because remember what I said about fuzzy edges? Slipping further into the murk of buried secrets, Beth is sleepwalking into something that defies traditional analysis. It’s grief, yes. And it’s the deeply suppressed remnants of ancient Tennessee trauma, sure. But it’s more than letting Freud and Jung battle it out in the pitch-black waters of the lake that the titular house overlooks.
I don’t want to dwell on plot specifics, because this one has a great deal of procedural pleasure. Any film that takes the time to visit an independent bookstore to search for some info on unspeakable texts is a film that is worthy of love. Similarly, any film that serves up a scene as pitch-perfect as the one in which an overly entitled parent tries to match wits with our Beth on the edge will merit serious discussion when year-end superlatives come around. Beth’s attempt to have a night out with the rest of the department is a perfectly executed symphony of menace that plays out like an unholy collaboration between Pina Bausch and Sam Peckinpah. Director Bruckner (Netflix’s The Ritual, Southbound, V/H/S, The Signal) finds the exact right tone to strike with this material — almost capable of hiding in Wine Mom Book Club trappings and respectable thriller drag. But there’s something expansive and upsetting lurking in the shadows — absence defining presence, and the kind of dread that elevates the heart rate and keeps the back of the neck clammy and cold.
The following are things that popped into my mind while experiencing this film: The Navidson Record, Balaguero’s Darkness (the European cut), Panic Room, the unholy geometry of Abdel-Hazred, The Neverending Story, the myth of Theseus, Gerry, side 2 of Hounds of Love, and that weird overlap between Borges and Dreamcatcher. None of them are denominators for the journey this film takes you on, but all of them are points to help you find your way in. And Hall meets every one of them in a performance that doesn’t pull any punches, nervy and relatable and jagged.
There’s a moment — and it happens way too often in big studio films — when you can feel the unease of the higher-ups at the studio. Sometimes it’s an exposition dump just before the final reel, sometimes a reshot scene that just clangs with a difference in tone, but as a viewer you sense that the film is trying to alter itself. That happens here, but the film swings back from that moment into a visual mode that is equally imaginative and terrifying. It’s like the horror movie equivalent of the AutoTune fake-out in Brandon Flowers’ “Lonely Town,” and it’s a major achievement to take a film so close along that precipice and still stick the landing.
Seriously. This is something very special. Granted, Delta has screwed up everything, and if you’re skittish about public spaces, that is completely understandable. But if you’re vaccinated, masked and willing to take some chances, this is the best cinematic experience in theaters currently. It haunts you, binding you to the space it unfolds in. Some would say I never left The Night House.