A knack for creepy atmospherics and individual scares goes a long way in the horror genre, and it takes “The Night House” pretty far. Though this tale of a new widow’s apparent haunting gets progressively lost in a narrative maze that’s complicated without being particularly rewarding, director David Bruckner suffuses the action with enough dread and unpleasant goosings to make this an above-average genre exercise.
Rebecca Hall plays Beth, an upstate New York schoolteacher reeling from her husband of 14 years taking his life just a few days before we meet her. Completely blindsided by that event — particularly since as far as she knew, she was the only party in their marriage who suffered from depression — her immediate reaction is one of anger. Friends (notably Sarah Goldberg as colleague Claire) and neighbors (Vondie Curtis Hall’s Mel) offer support, but Beth fends them off, preferring to process bitter grief alone, with a drink or 10.
Yet while she may feel abandoned, she doesn’t actually feel alone, as disturbances begin occurring each night in the lakefront house that architect Owen (Even Jonigkeit) built for the two of them. These take the form of poltergeist knocks when there’s nobody at the door, or the stereo turning itself on to play “their song” in the wee hours. Beth has additional nocturnal experiences that seem too real to be dreamed, yet abruptly end when she wakes to find herself having slept on the floor. Digging around, she finds clues that Owen may have had some kind of secret life involving occult beliefs, plus the suspicious acquaintanceship of women who all look vaguely like Beth.
The script by duo Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (“Siren,” “Super Dark Times”) works up an initially intriguing, then muddy, finally just-not-that-interesting supernatural puzzle unlocked by a combination of demons and duplicates. It does not bear close scrutiny during “Night House,” let alone afterward. Another problem is that the usually impressive Hall emphasizes Beth’s caustic side to a degree that she’s not an especially sympathetic heroine. Rather than seeming a temporary reaction to trauma, the character’s sour edge feels so innate it’s hard to understand what others might see in her, or visualize her purported soulmate relation to Owen (who remains a hunky cipher here).
Those are significant drawbacks. Yet while you’re watching it, “The Night House” is unsettling enough to allow setting them mostly aside. Bruckner was one of three directors on 2007’s underrated mass-hysteria thriller “The Signal,” as well as solo helmer of good wilderness horror “The Ritual” a decade later and several strong omnibus contributions in between. He has a flair for creating tension and dislocation, qualities evoked with equal success but different stylistic tacks in each of the above projects.
Here, he provides a certain elegance but also shadowy menace to a story much dependent on the picture windows and other reflective surfaces of Beth’s home, whose openness ought to comfort yet instead offers the threat of parallel worlds. DP Elisha Christian’s widescreen images, Kathrin Eder’s sharp production design and David Marks’ canny editing are major contributors to the discomfiting atmosphere, as is Ben Lovett’s effective score. “The Night House” is ultimately somewhat muddled and unmemorable as storytelling, but it pulls off what’s arguably the most crucial matter of simply being pretty chilling.