Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Sundance ’20: The Night House

Imagine if Jerry Zucker’s Ghost had been tweaked into a terrifying horror movie rather than a paranormal romance. That is basically where this film starts, but it goes off in a crazy occult direction all its own. Being a grieving young widow is still painfully hard and it only gets harder in David Bruckner’s The Night House, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

It is hard to blame Beth for using a whole lot of wine to self-medicate the pain of her husband Owen’s recent inexplicable suicide. He left a note, but it takes her a while to summon the resolve to read it and when she does, it makes absolutely no sense. As she drinks herself to sleep, she starts to feel Owen’s presence. The sensation grows in intensity, as things start to go bump in the night. That might sound like a relatively conventional movie haunting, but the uncanny goings-on take on sinister metaphysical dimensions as Beth follows Owen’s trail down the rabbit-hole.

Getting too specific would be spoilery, but there are a number of original elements in Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski’s screenplay that are really creepy. This might be Bruckner’s best work at the helm (even better than The Ritual), but he gets critical contributions from the art and design team. From the eerie looking lake house to some ominous rare books Beth unearths, the props and settings really help intensify the vibe of deepening dread.

To put it in plain language: this film is terrifying. However, Evangelicals and other devout Christians should be strongly cautioned—this film will profoundly trouble you. That is not because it portrays Christians as caricatures or mocks their faith. Such boorishness is easily dismissed. This film cuts deeper than that.

Be that as it may, Rebecca Hall gives probably the most emotionally raw performance in a horror film since Toni Collette in Hereditary. Her unflinchingly honest portrayal of Beth is probably just as unsettling as all the supernatural stuff. She is nicely balanced by Sarah Goldberg, who comes across as very real and genuine playing Beth’s close friend and school colleague Claire. Plus, it is also nice to see Vondie Curtis-Hall bringing some gravitas to the film as Mel, the concerned neighbor (and he should be concerned).

This is a remarkably accomplished film, in which all the elements work in concert to scare the pants off viewers. Elisha Christian’s spooky cinematography and David Marks’ incisive editing are particularly effective at keeping us on the edge of our seats. Very highly recommended for horror fans, The Night House screens again tomorrow (1/29) and Saturday (2/1) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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