Sundance 2020: The Night House, by David Bax
Sometimes I forget what my dad’s voice sounded like. I can always picture him doing the things he loved, like coaching my little league baseball team, or doing the things I loved, like rolling his eyes when we disagreed about something. But the specific sound of his voice is hard to conjure up. I thought about that while watching David Bruckner’s The Night House. Anytime Rebecca Hall’s Beth watches home movies of her recently departed husband or even their wedding video, we never actually hear him speak. The Night House explores these universal aspects of grief as well as some of the more difficult ones we tend not to talk about out loud and it does so while scaring the absolute bejesus out of us.
Beth had no idea of the demons (possibly literal ones?) with which her husband struggled and which led him to commit suicide mere days before we meet her. While her friends (played by sterling character actors Sarah Goldberg and Vondie Curtis-Hall) encourage her to start the process of moving on, she can’t help but follow the breadcrumbs he left behind, uncovering the darker and more complex life she never never knew he was leading.
And so The Night House, which is–make no mistake–a horror movie, also takes on the mantle of the mystery genre. Each new secret Beth uncovers drives her further and further from the person she thought she was. Hall’s performance as a woman whose spiraling grief turns her into an uncaged animal is absolutely enthralling.
There have been an awful lot of horror movies about grief in recent years (Ari Aster seems to be out to corner the market all by himself) but The Night House is one of the best. While its topmost concern is be the question of whether or not we truly knew the people we have loved and lost, it finds more emotional immediacy in the simple, almost primeval, desire to be physically near someone you know you’ll never see again.
As for Beth, her Owen (Evan Jonigketi) comes to her in dreams that are unspeakably chilling to us but oddly comforting to her. These sequences recall Rodney Ascher’s sleep paralysis documentary The Nightmare (obliquely referenced by a tertiary character in the movie) in their sustained terror.
Whether or not Beth ever uncovers the full mystery of who Owen really was, The Night House checks all the boxes it needs to when it comes to scares while exploring deeper intrigue with a heroine who has good reason to keep plumbing the depths of fear while most of us would be yelling, “Run!” This is the rare movie where we want her to go through that door or down those stairs, even though we know that what she finds will keep us up at night.