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Review: The atmospheric terror of ‘The Night House’ delivers 2021’s best horror film

Channeling some of the best horror films of recent years, “The Night House” blends existential dread, trauma, grief and good old fashioned spectral haunts to create the year’s most chilling film yet. (Searchlight Pictures)

Long after the plot details and character arcs of a horror film fade from memory, its greatest frights remain lodged viewers’ minds. The most scarring, jarring jump scares and shocks are bound to perennially trigger and re-trigger that primitive fight-or-flight reaction.

David Bruckner’s “The Night House” has now joined these hallowed, horrific ranks, delivering one of the best jump scares in recent memory – but the new, atmospheric horror-thriller has far more to offer than just quick scares, and its gripping plot will linger with viewers for a long time to come.

Channeling some of the best horror films of recent years – from “Hereditary” to “Us” and “The Invisible Man” – “The Night House” blends existential dread, trauma, grief and good old fashioned spectral haunts to create the year’s most chilling film yet.

Rebecca Hall as Beth in “The Night House.” (Searchlight Pictures)

In the wake of her husband’s mysterious suicide, Beth (Rebecca Hall) finds herself asking the same question everyone left behind does: Why? As she tries her best to cope with the loss and find some peace of mind, the darkest corners of her mind go to work. While combing through her husband’s possessions, she finds photos on his phone of women – women who look alarmingly like Beth herself. As her suspicion mounts, it doesn’t help that Beth’s lonely nights at the couple’s home feature visits from a haunting presence that leaves bloody footprints, leaves cryptic messages and blasts the couple’s old record player.

Beth’s co-worker, Claire (Sarah Goldberg), does her best to convince her friend to let the past remain a mystery, but as more and more pieces come together, Beth knows that’s no longer an option. When the spirit’s presence leads Beth to an identical house hidden across the lake during one late-night visit, a series of disturbing discovery force Beth to confront her husband’s past – and the mysterious presence – once and for all.

Scenic lake house by day, haunted hellscape by night. (Searchlight Pictures)

While the story holding together “The Night House” is certainly a compelling one worth telling, the performance of Hall in the film’s leading role is what truly elevates it to a new level. Gracing the screen for nearly every minute of the film’s 108-minute runtime, Hall’s stellar acting and mounting terror contribute to the film’s somber tone and eerie feeling of dread as much as any ominous score or shadowy lighting does. With that being said, the technical elements still play a huge part in the fear developed here.

With the exception of maybe one or two particular moments, there aren’t necessarily scary “scenes” in “The Night House.” Instead, the film as a whole is a progression of mounting fear and suspicion – the kind capable of leaving audiences with sore jaws and fingers once the credits roll due to constant clenching.

The first two acts of “The Night House” fully lean into developing this chilling atmosphere and simply living in it, as things unfold and Hall thrives. While the film’s finally act still manages to stick the landing with a satisfying conclusion, it’s tasked with unpacking quite a bit of information and detail in a limited amount of time, all while the horror and action come to a climax. The result is a bit a confusion, some lingering questions and a definite need to Google “‘The Night House’ ending explained,” just to be sure.

Sarah Goldberg as Claire in “The Night House.” (Searchlight Pictures)

Just as in “Hereditary,” where a family in free fall delivers more shock and fright than a pagan cult, the human nature is what’s scariest in “The Night House.” Beyond any of the late night visits or jump scares, the unraveling of Beth’s life due to lying, secrets and, alright, a little bit of demonic possession, proves to be the realest horror here – because it could easily happen to anyone.

For those brave enough to see “The Night House,” they’ll be treated to a stellar performance, tangible fear, and the year’s best horror film – just be ready to hold your breath for 108 minutes.

Star Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“The Night House” releases in theaters on August 20, 2021.

Zach Goins View All

Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.

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