Release Date(s)2020 (October 19, 2021)
Studio(s)Anton/Phantom Four Films/TSG Entertainment (Fox Searchlight)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: C
Rebecca Hall isn’t an actor who most people would associate with the horror genre, but she has lent her talents to a couple of noteworthy ghost stories: The Awakening in 2011, and now The Night House in 2021. On the other hand, director David Bruckner has stayed faithful to the genre for his entire career, starting with short subjects in anthology films such as The Signal and V/H/S, where his segment Amateur Night was one of the highlights, and moving into features with 2017’s underrated The Ritual. While his shorts have tended to be fairly high-concept, his features have been more character driven, so Hall was a natural for the lead in The Night House.
Beth (Hall) is a schoolteacher struggling to recover from the recent suicide of her husband Owen (Evan JonigKeit). He left a simple suicide note which raises more questions than it answers, and as Beth tries to put things behind her, strange occurrences at their lake house pushes her down the path of trying to understand what happened. Her best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg) and her neighbor Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) encourage her to let go, but Beth’s obsessiveness will take her to darker places than she ever could have imagined.
Understanding Beth is the key to understanding The Night House, as it’s her journey from beginning to end. The screenplay by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski doesn’t always relay what Beth is thinking and feeling in an overt fashion, so the film depends on Hall to do the heavy lifting through her remarkably expressive face. She can give more insight into a character through one raised eyebrow than many actors can with pages of dialogue at their disposal. Beth is a complex character, but that complexity is largely conveyed through how she reacts to what's happening around her. She’s also not entirely sympathetic, and Hall isn’t afraid to play her prickly side.
While Buckner is guilty of using some heavy-handed jump scares, The Night House has a lot of subtle details in it that can pass by pretty quickly, but all of which are significant in hindsight. The production design uses negative space to provide some optical illusions which eventually become more than that, and the choice to repeat a certain Richard and Linda Thompson song throughout the film offers some clues which will only have meaning to those who are familiar with the lyrics. There’s even one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Neon Genesis Evangelion when Beth is exploring the photos on her husband’s laptop, though the implications of that are thoroughly baffling. But The Night House is the kind of film in which trying to solve the puzzle pieces can be more fun than knowing all of the answers.
Cinematographer Elisha Christian captured The Night House digitally at 2.8K and 3.4K resolutions using ARRI Alexa Mini cameras with Cooke 5/i and Angenieux Optimo lenses. It was finished as a 2K Digital Intermediate, and framed at the 2.35:1 aspect ratio for its theatrical release. There’s a strong amount of fine detail visible, with facial textures in particular really standing out—Hall’s seemingly smooth skin is not always so smooth here, but instead shows its natural imperfections. The contrast can be a little flat with elevated black levels, especially in the darkest scenes, but given the lenses that were used, it’s likely that they wanted to maximize detail in low light conditions rather than trying to achieve the deepest blacks. The color balance is good, with the generally more muted color scheme breaking out into vivid tones when appropriate. The stylized cinematography serves the story well.
Primary audio is available in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. This is one film which really cries out for an Atmos mix. There's so much opportunity for positional effects—the overheads would have been particularly effective in a few scenes. That said, this is a solid 5.1 mix, with the surround channels being used to provide eerie ambient effects, and also adding to the sound design of the ghostly voices. There’s deep bass in the score by Ben Lovett, and the dynamics can be quite powerful—if you hate loud jump scare effects, this may not be the film for you. Other audio choices include English 2.0 Descriptive Audio, French 5.1 Dolby Digital, and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, with optional English SDH, French, or Spanish subtitles.
The following extras are included, both in HD:
- What Happens at the Lake House (22:19)
- Theatrical Trailer (2:23)
What Happens at the Lake House features interviews with Bruckner, Hall, Evan Jonigkeit, and Vondie Curtis-Hall. Bruckner explains what attracted him to the script while Hall talks about what attracted her to the character. She describes Beth as witty, unstable, and vulnerable, while being really lost, yet obsessed with uncovering what has been happening—Hall’s insights into the character clearly guided her performance. Curtis-Hall describes the house as being its own character, and Hall says that Bruckner doesn’t just make horror films, he’s obsessed with them. Brucker covers his choices of crew such as the production designer, cinematographer, composer, and editor. There’s a bit of behind-the-scenes footage as well. While not terribly comprehensive, this is still a pretty interesting look at the film.
The Night House was yet another victim of the pandemic, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, but having its theatrical release delayed until August of 2021, where it sank pretty quickly. That’s unfortunate, because while it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, there's more going on here than the trailers would seem to indicate. Hopefully time is kind, and it eventually picks up the following that it deserves.
- Stephen Bjork
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