SPOILERS AHEAD for The Night House. You’ve been warned.
Grief is a monster – one that each of us has to battle at least once in our lives. I mean that figuratively, of course. But what if it wasn’t just a metaphor? What if grief really was a monster? What would it look like? How would it behave? And what awaits us after death? Is there something on the other side, someplace for us to go? And is it good or evil? These are some of the fascinating, creepy questions that drive the story of The Night House.
Our heroine is Beth (the always amazing Rebecca Hall), who’s in shock over her husband Owen’s (Evan Jonigkeit) suicide. We begin after the funeral, with Beth getting dropped off at their lake house by a well-meaning acquaintance who leaves her with a casserole and a “call if you need anything.” Beth wanders into the kitchen, looks around – and immediately dumps the casserole in the trash, preferring liquor to food.
And it isn’t long before the weirdness starts. The stereo turns on by itself in the middle of the night, blasting their wedding song. Beth hears noises, a whispering that leads her to Owen’s office. There’s nothing there, but she sees a light across the lake that shouldn’t be there. She wakes up the next morning on the office floor, not quite remembering how she got there. But she tries to soldier on, going to work at the high school where she teaches. Her best friend and fellow teacher Claire (Sarah Goldberg) says she really doesn’t need to be there, but Beth just says she needs something to keep her busy.
Now, hands down, the best part of The Night House is Rebecca Hall’s performance. Her “grieving widow” takes a different path than we’re used to seeing in most stories. Beth’s sorrow lies buried under a deep well of anger. Anger that spills out of her with every word, every look. An anger so all-consuming that it dominates her every thought. Anger that only those who’ve been abandoned by a loved one who commits suicide can understand.
So even when she’s in the company of strangers, Beth can’t help but bring up Owen’s suicide in the harshest, snarkiest, most socially inappropriate way. A student’s mother gets way more than she bargained for when she decides to take Beth on over her child’s grade. And while it’s a hilarious scene. And I’m sure most teachers would love to do the exact same thing to the snotty, entitled parents they have to put up with – it also shows how disconnected Beth’s becoming.
When she goes out with Claire and some of the other teachers for drinks, she flat out asks everybody if they believe in ghosts. Beth tells these weirded-out acquaintances that the lake house is haunted and even produces Owen’s suicide note, which she keeps in her purse – a short, cryptic message that makes no sense and only leaves more questions.
Claire takes Beth home, and as she drinks more of their stash of brandy that she doesn’t even like, Beth reveals that she technically died once after an accident years ago. After that, she stopped believing in any sort of afterlife – having firsthand knowledge, so to speak, that there’s nothing out there. She says that Owen was the one who believed in the “good place” we’re all supposed to go to after death. He was the optimist – and Beth says she was the one who suffered with depression, not Owen.
Beth has another dream that night, one that leads her down to the dock. In the beam of her flashlight, she sees fresh, wet footprints on the dock that walk right up to her. Thinking that it’s Owen, she reaches out to touch whatever is there and it touches her back, putting her under some kind of spell. She ends up passed out in the rowboat, waking up when it hits land on the other side of the lake.
And there, she finds something incredible, peculiar and disturbing. Another house, exactly like theirs – except this one is a mirror image. In the windows, she sees Owen and herself – except it’s not her. It’s women who look like her. The next morning, she goes across the lake, runs into her neighbor and friend, Mel (Vondie Curtis Hall), and tells him about the dream. He just tells her there’s nothing there and that he’s worried about her, saying she’s “not well.”
But Beth isn’t hearing any of that. If anything, it spurs her on, driving her to search for answers. And she’s shocked to find that Owen did, in fact, build another house there on the other side of the lake. It’s just an unfinished shell, but everything is the reverse of their house, just like in her dream.
A search of Owen’s phone produces photos of women – all of whom look like her. He must have had an affair – or two. Or ten. She has no way of knowing. And tearing through everything in Owen’s office only leads to more confounding discoveries. In addition to the sketches of the house and reverse house, there’s a book of mazes called a Caerdroia, with Owen’s handwritten notes about binding spells and curses that don’t seem to make any sense. Most disturbing of all, Beth finds a small sculpture of a naked woman, bound and pierced by needles, like a voodoo doll.
Tracing the Caerdroia back to the occult book shop where he bought it, Beth meets one of the women Owen had taken photos of, named Madelyne (Stacy Martin), and confronts her. She tells Madelyne about Owen’s suicide and she’s shocked and understandably scared, but Madelyne claims there was no affair. Beth also confronts Mel about what he knew, and he does confess that he once caught Owen and another lookalike woman across the lake. Owen confided in him that he had terrible “urges” but made Mel promise not to reveal anything to Beth. And he didn’t, but only because Owen seemed “good” after that.
Madelyne surprises Beth by showing up at the house. She tells Beth what really happened, that they met at the store and Owen brought her to the lake – to the reverse house on the other side. She says they never slept together but did kiss – and Owen put his hands around her throat as if to strangle her. But as soon as she protested, he backed off and took her home.
Beth is at her wit’s end by this time, worn down to a raw nerve that finally uncovers her deep sorrow and leads her to the most horrifying discovery of all – that Owen’s terrible urges were murderous ones. And under the floorboards of the reverse house lie the bodies of those lookalike women – women who took her place. She calls out to Owen, and something answers back, taking a physical hold of her – but it’s not Owen.
And here’s where the flick takes its trippy final turn, where Beth finds herself back in the rowboat with something that looks like Owen but isn’t. What exactly is it? Well, to be honest, I’m still not really sure, and I’m also not sure that the filmmakers wanted us to know for sure. From what I could gather, it’s what awaits us all on the other side of this life. Whether it’s a person, place or thing – or all of the above – is unknown. But for the purposes of this story, it seems to go by The Nothing – as in the nothing that Owen wrote about in his suicide note: “You were right. There is Nothing. Nothing is after you. You’re safe now.”
The Nothing tells Beth what really happened. More or less – it followed Beth back from death and found a home inside of Owen. But Owen fought back, finding ways to trick The Nothing by using a binding spell and the reverse house and killing the lookalike women instead of Beth. But eventually, The Nothing won, and the only way Owen figured he could protect Beth was to kill himself. And now The Nothing wants the same of Beth. To return to it by killing herself with the very same gun Owen used.
But Beth has something that Owen didn’t – a true friend. Claire shows up at the house after getting a disturbing message from Beth and finds the house in disarray. She runs out to the dock and sees Beth out in the middle of the lake in the boat. Claire bravely jumps in and swims out to her, dragging Beth out of the boat before she has a chance to use the gun. Safe on the dock, Beth looks out toward the boat and sees the darkness, one that looks like just a shadow to anyone else, but she knows what it really is – it’s Nothing.
The Night House is unusual in that it doesn’t follow typical horror formula. There are some clever jump scares, some gore – but what’s most frightening are the ideas it presents. Ideas that aren’t spelled out for you and tied up in a neat ending that makes perfect sense. Normally, that would be considered problematic – and if you watch it, you may not be entirely satisfied by the ending. I know I wasn’t. I still had a ton of questions and wasn’t sure I really understood what they were trying to tell me. But I think this is one instance where it’s sort of okay that everything is left a little vague.
In fact, the journey the flick takes is very much like its own Caerdroia, sending you through a disorienting series of turns that sometimes leads to dead ends. And when you finally get to the center of the maze, you find the monster. But it’s not one that can ever really be defeated – which is the realization that Beth comes to at last. I’m not sure if that’s exactly what the filmmakers meant, but it’s what I got out of it. It’s unsettling and creepy, and in the end, that’s all any good horror flick needs to be.
Directed by: David Bruckner
Written by: Ben Collins, Luke Piotrowski
Release Date: August 20, 2021 (originally premiered at Sundance 2020)
Run Time: 1 hr 47 min
Distributor: Searchlight Pictures