Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Fantasia Extra: The Night House

Part of the Fantasia experience: The mid-sized genre movie that was either booked before it was acquired by a distributor, or where the distributor and festival think they can get some sort of synergy by having what basically amounts to a preview showing at the festival a couple of days before it hits theaters. I don't know how often that works out - I've been to a couple that were dead, and a couple where I couldn't get in with my media pass because all the local working film critics who don't otherwise touch the festival show up. Most of the time I just go for the thing playing in De Seve which I probably won't have the chance to see again in three days. I then do that, and write it up with something like "Fantasia Day 27 (of 24)".

Or "Fantasia Extra".

Anyway, I've been looking forward to this one all year; for a while, the preview seemed to show up in front of every movie I saw for six months and then vanished in the weeks before its release, which made me wonder if it had been pushed off or even sent to VOD (which I gather Disney can't do as part of their deal to acquire Twentieth Century Fox's entertainment properties, but maybe they've got clever lawyers). It hasn't exactly set the box office on fire, though it probably was never going to, but I wonder if it hit the "saw trailers for so long that people figured it had already come and gone.

I really like it, though. I get into it in the main review, but the places where it isn't smooth are in the places where it's maybe useful to struggle a bit. I'm kind of impressed by that, because I've found myself less fond of a lot of similar smart horror movies (The Witch, Heredity, etc.) because they sacrifice the stuff that's really scary about human nature for the supernatural details that aren't ultimately as scary to me. This one is more interesting in that even as it's ambiguous in some ways, it starts from a place of wrestling with how to deal with not being conventionally spiritual - when you don't believe that there is something external to defer to, an afterlife or some other entity, it's easy to create it or fall prey to despair. I think it's a question that a lot of the film's viewers probably struggle with, and I am kind of impressed with how the film's answer is not "there may be more to all this than you think", but something closer to "you can get lost in the metaphor you use to understand all this". It certainly resonates with me far more than the other way around.

The Night House

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 September 2021 in AMC Assembly Row #10 (first-run, DCP)

The Night House is the sort of smart genre movie that I start to get worried about in the middle; I've been burned often enough by supernatural thrillers that are willing to sacrifice the themes that make them resonate in order to get one more scare or twist. This one definitely gives off that vibe at times, sometimes sinking a little too deep into its mythology for its own good, but ultimately the folks involved do want there to be something more to their scares than just making a viewer jump.

As it opens, Beth (Rebecca Hall) is just returning from the funeral for her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit), who committed suicide for reasons she doesn't begin to understand. She returns to the house that he built on a lake and her work as a high-school English teacher (though, as summer break has started, it's mostly annoying administrative tasks) but after 15 years of marriage and with her family and friends scattered, her life seems more hole than anything else, and neither widowed neighbor Mel (Vondie Curtis Hall) nor best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg) can really do much for her. And when strange apparitions and noises start appearing, it's frightening and something she is even more ill-equipped to handle than most - she had a near-death experience as a teenager, and saw nothing when her heart stopped.

That last bit is something that writers Ben Collins & Luke Piotrowski have some difficulty shoehorning into the script, but it is in many ways the crux of the entire movie. Director David Bruckner and star Rebecca Hall make do a really clever job of leaning into the way that there's no natural place for that information as it comes out, though it may not seem that way at the time: Beth is desperately trying to reconcile all of this and there's no way to get help doing so without the information dump. The trick is that any reading of this being her asking to help is buried deep, because as in almost every other scene in the movie, Beth is angry. She's got every right to be, of course, but the fact that her first-hand experience says there is no afterlife leaves her with few other places to go. Hall is tasked with delivering a full symphony of anger, and it's something magnificent: The emotion is omnipresent but mostly directed at someone not there, so there's a stinging meanness to when she finds a living target that the audience enjoys but with some unease. It ebbs and flows and interacts with other things so that Hall's performance is never monotonous, but the anger is always there.

So is the loneliness, of course, although that's buried underneath the anger. It's inescapable in the early scenes, as Bruckner, cinematographer Elisha Christian, and production designer Kathrin Eder find ways to remind the audience that the house was specifically built for two, with everything from the bathroom to the home office having his-and-her arrangements, so that when Beth starts packing up Owen's things, the audience knows that this is just going to accentuate his absence. The film's best jump scares and unnerving visuals come from manipulating negative space and reflection. Beth seeing something early on that hints at this is almost unnecessary. Visually and thematically, it all makes the sort of eerie sense that doesn't need a specific lore to explain it.

Trying to integrate some sort of mythic element into the story is where the film starts to get a bit wobbly, although as with Beth putting her brush with death out there, there's an argument to be made that the filmmakers want the audience to have an unsteady relationship with that element of the story. If the mythology is too easily dismissed, The Night House might be reduced to Beth just being a traumatized, unreliable narrator; if it's too easily accepted, or even if the filmmakers try to be slyly ambiguous, then it becomes a movie about finding some sort of faith, and that's not really their game either. Indeed, the film often seems to argue that the human need to ascribe meaning and lessons to things which have none is where the real danger lies, leading one to mentally transform "nothing" as an absence into "Nothing" as an entity, or reacting to horror with a terrible nihilism. It's a very tricky needle for Bruckner and company to thread: Nothing as a being that does visually impressive supernatural things is memorable, but potentially hollow; Beth (and perhaps Owen) grasping at that because there's no comfort in the alternative is perhaps too abstract aims more directly at the gut but isn't similarly exciting. Ultimately, Bruckner and company do navigate it, and maybe the fact that they don't do it smoothly is part of the point - this isn't an easy thing to grapple with and metaphor only gets you so far.

That's a kind of fascinating thing to bury inside a horror movie that is mostly built to be a good example of the genre rather than a commentary on it: The Night House is mostly about creeping the audience out giving Rebecca Hall the sort of genre-movie role that surprises non-fans with how meaty it is, and it works quite well as that. The filmmakers may struggle a bit with their other ambitions, but they commit to the struggle in a way that is both honest and unnerving, and that lingers better than one last gotcha moment.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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