David Bruckner's 'The Night House' Takes the Crown for Psychological Horror Movie of the Year [Fantasia Film Festival]

A woman can see her mirror image in the shower door
Rebecca Hall as BETH in THE NIGHT HOUSE

The unexpected death of a loved one ignities a search for answers. Like any loss that needs to be grieved, the person left behind wants to know what happened and why. The pain remains, but these answers can provide closure and the option to move forward with understanding. The Night House tells the story of one woman's desperate search for such answers after her husband's suicide. Directed by David Bruckner (The Signal; The Ritual) and with a screenplay by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, The Night House operates as a psychological thriller but adds mystery and horror elements with spine-tingling results.

Beth (Rebecca Hall) spirals after her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) commits suicide. Her mourning process begins in a normal way: she drinks wine and watches videos of their memories together. Her sanity begins to fray, however, when she begins to suspect that a ghostly presence has entered the house. All signs point to this being the case, and Beth wonders if Owen has found a way to come back to her. At the same time, as she begins the painful process of sorting through Owen's things, she uncovers secrets about her husband that rock her to the core.

Saying much more about the plot would give much of the fun away. Viewers tired of the variety of horror built on jump scares or chainsaw massacres will relish this film that deals more with the terror of the mind than the body. The screenplay by Collins and Piotrowski takes its time building an atmosphere full of dread, with the centerpiece being the showpiece of a house that Beth and Owen shared together. Similar to movies like The Shining and Parasite, the house and surrounding grounds become an important part of the events that will take place. The house becomes a trap and a physical manifestation of Beth's state of mind, neither of which is safe. Cinematographer and director of photography Elisha Christian make inspired lighting choices to great effect. When the sun goes down, each corner of the house looks more menacing than the next. Red and purple tones color nighttime scenes on the water, using the color palette of supernatural monsters in film from the past.

Two women stand against a brick wall talking
[L-R] Rebecca hall as BETH, Sarah Goldberg as CLAIRE in THE NIGHT HOUSE
The concept of a home being a trap is woven deeply into the story. Shot on location in upstate New York, the house chosen as the main set exists in real life. However, the production team created alternate versions of the home on sound stages that they could manipulate to create gasp-worthy visual effects. During her investigation into Owen's records, Beth learns about the concept of caerdroia, or Welsh turf mazes. Welsh shepherds used them for ritual dances, but other records indicate they were believed to be perfect tools of entrapment. Enemies could get in but never find their way out. The architecture of the home and the cryptic plans Owen used become part of the puzzle Beth (and the viewer) needs to solve to gain understanding.

Rebecca Hall plays the lead role of Beth with impressive emotional range. A veteran actress and now director (Passing comes out later in 2021), Hall is known for taking risks in the roles she accepts. In films like Permission, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, she depicts strong and smart female characters that make unorthodox romantic decisions and reap the rewards and consequences. And she is no stranger to the thriller and horror genres, with roles in films like The Prestige, The Awakening, and The Gift. All of this experience grants Hall a natural acting style that gives her performance an authentic grace. Here her character feels anger, depths of sorrow, and paralyzing terror. These emotions never look forced or overdone.

Having the right leading lady makes a difference, because Hall stays on screen through most of the runtime, often by herself. Like Elisabeth Moss in Leigh Whannell's Invisible Man, she often interacts with an invisible presence, a skill which few can pull off without looking ridiculous. [Read about my press conference with Rebecca Hall to find out how she pulled it off.] 

A woman can be seen through a large window
Rebecca Hall as BETH in THE NIGHT HOUSE

The supporting cast includes Sarah Goldberg as Claire, Beth's best friend, Vondie Curtis-Hall as Mel, and Evan Jonigkeit as the deceased spouse, Owen. Stacey Martin as Madelyne makes a brief but crucial appearance. The confession scene between Madelyne and Beth is one of the most emotionally intense dialogue scenes in a horror movie I have seen in a long time, and superb camera work and well-crafted dialogue fully support the moment.

The chilling score by Ben Lovett adds a brooding intensity to the mood. The music never tries to take center stage. Nonetheless, during critical moments, the music leads the viewer to feel the chaos and emotional turmoil of Beth. And the song "Calvary Cross", performed by Richard & Linda Thompson, plays a key role in the obsession between Beth and the Entity. A haunting track with lyrics that speak of pain, passion, and suffering, "Calvary Cross" fits perfectly with the vibe of the film.

The Night House provides a truly unique horror experience. Similar to movies like Midsommar and Vertigo, the horror depicted goes beyond simple scares. It's a journey into the very heart and soul of a person. It speaks to the universal process of grieving and the secrets we keep to protect the ones we love. When loss comes, the desperation to fill the void left can trump every other need. The Night House captures these truths in this unforgettable psychological horror.

Interview with film score composer Ben Lovett.   

Release info: Sneak peek at Fantasia Festival on August 12. Coming to theaters August 20, 2021

Final score: 4.5 out of 5