Content Warning: this editorial contains explicit details about suicide.
This article also includes spoilers for The Night House.
I walked out of the theater last weekend after seeing The Night House absolutely gutted. Very few horror films have ever managed to pulverize me in such a totally debilitating way that I literally couldn’t catch my breath. It’s an experience that rivals, perhaps usurps, my visceral, deeply-personal reaction to Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man. This spooky ghost story captures the merciless betrayal of one’s own thoughts, the depressive sort which insidiously worms into your brain 一 and before you know it, you’re thinking about killing yourself every single day.
Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski’s joint screenplay sets the framework, and David Bruckner’s direction creeps into your eye sockets, strokes of playful surrealism and frank realism shape-shifting and bending together and then apart into a magnificently unsettling and brutal landscape. The human condition is nothing if not frail and dissolvable under the most strenuous and traumatic of conditions. Mental health lies at the center of this story, an imposing force that makes its presence known even when a particular scene has nothing to do with it. It’s malevolent. And unstoppable. And terrifying.
Bruckner plucks upon genre conventions like a harpist on their gilded, shiny new instrument 一 toying with the haunted house set-up, the unreliable narrator, and a little demonic possession 一 weaving to and fro between expectation and impossibility. He makes you comfortable with tradition one moment, totally detonating it the very next. There’s an immersive quality to the filmmaking, intrinsically-linked to the emotional weight by which Rebecca Hall delivers her star-turn performance.
I anticipated a good ole fashion scare. And I certainly got it in spades. But anvils of misery and guilt and grief and suffocating sadness hurled at my head and chest 一 no, I did not even imagine the film would pierce me like it did. The marketing conveniently (and thankfully) side-steps these emotional roots, which when watered so attentively by Bruckner, took hold of my soul, morphing it into some knotted, strangling, and throbbing mass of dirt and rot.
The film is Beth’s (Hall) story, opening in the hours following her late husband Owen’s (Evan Jonigkeit) funeral. She’s noticeably emotionless. A loved one consoles her, saying final farewells and meaningless platitudes on the front steps. No amount of thin solace could possibly make her pain any less real and any less raw. In the moment, it’s an annoyance, no matter how well-intentioned. The ensuing days trip one right into the next; Owen’s suicide follows her around as a dark, swirling cloud shrouding every waking moment of her life, from mundane household tasks to her work as a speech teacher at the local high school. When a disgruntled parent makes an unexpected appointment to discuss her son’s C+ final grade, and displays little empathy for Beth’s “personal matter,” Beth rips into her as a python snagging on flesh and reveals exactly how her husband died: “My husband shot himself in the head last Thursday.”
So, you’ll have to forgive her if she is unbothered by some student named Hunter and his lack of preparation for the final presentation. It’s the least of her worries. Her mind is haunted, by both Owen’s abrupt departure and her own depression-addled thoughts. As she reveals to a group of friends over a couple drinks, she’s long suffered with depression, while Owen never did, or at least never expressed suicidal thoughts, so his death comes as a cataclysmic shock 一 just as confusing as anything else.
Stages of grief, as we’ve come to understand, don’t fall like dominoes. Rather, the stages pour out as summer rain, frequently torrential and always unexpected. Beth swings from one extreme to another 一 cold and distant to boiling with anger (and every emotional beat in between). She eventually settles upon a quest for answers, flipping through boxes of Owen’s personal belongings, sketches of their home’s floor plan (which he mostly built himself), and his phone, seeking for some breadcrumb or clue to help her understand why he took his own life.
Even his suicide note doesn’t quite put all the puzzle pieces into place. “You were right. There is nothing,” he penned on a single cutout of paper. “Nothing is after you. You’re safe now.” Those words are soul-rattling. Four simple lines. Nothing about love or adoration or an apology, as often are present in suicide notes. No concrete declarations that would make sense to the outsider.
But the “nothing” stings Beth to her core. That nothing actually, in fact, means everything. She once died, she confides in her best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg), when she was 17. She’d endured a grisly car crash, and her vital organs were essentially crushed. She was proclaimed dead… for four minutes. And what she felt in that brief time span felt like an eternity. Many have suggested that the afterlife is like a long tunnel and a light penetrates the overwhelming blackness 一 or so they say. But not for Beth. The afterlife is nothing but a tunnel. Nothing.
Like Beth, that nothing hangs over my life. It’s like a veil. I’ve passed through it many times in my life. You don’t know exactly how to describe it to other people 一 even now, I’m having a hard time defining it in terms people can understand, but I’ll try…
I believe I traveled through that nothing. 12 years ago, I tried to kill myself. It wasn’t anything new. I’d tried to kill myself many times before. But this time was somehow different. This time I felt close to death. Or so my memory of it tells me. I remember every detail about that night. The coolness of February ripe on my skin. The way my mind spiraled like a hypnotist’s wheel after I gobbled an entire jumbo bottle of Tylenol. The black slime that erupted from my intestines, as I staggered through the desolate streets of my neighborhood. The moon hung low, I remember that too, sharp lines of silver dancing across my quivering eyelids. The way I tumbled onto the concrete, tiny gravel biting into my palms. Every single detail.
I was floating outside of myself. I could neither grasp the past nor the present 一 yet the future, a future without me, seemed to clobber me over the back of the head. “What the hell am I doing?” I recall thinking most. Then, it was like the floodgates had burst, and I fell down, down, down into whole black nothing: What will people think? What damage have I done? How could I do this to my friends and family? Will they even be able to move on? What happens now? Where does my soul go? What about my belongings? Will they go to charity? What if I could save myself?
All those questions left me empty handed. I had nothing. We have nothing when it comes right down to it. That’s the tragedy of it all. Suicide is a cannonball, splashing into the surface of life, and it’s the outward ripples that effect everything and everyone you’ve ever come into contact with. Beth is so desperate to understand, Owen’s suicide begins affecting her ability to remain in the present. As Claire aptly points out, she’s still alive and in the here and now. But Beth has already lost parts of herself, whirling down a rabbit hole to some warped Wonderland in which she comes to learn Owen might have harbored a darker secret than she ever could have predicted.
Almost immediately, Beth experiences auditory hallucinations 一 creaky floor boards, the stereo turning on full-blast by itself, and vicious knocking on the front door. It’s hard to surmise if she’s just consumed by her grief, anger, and loneliness, or if those sounds are actually occurring in the space. You know, grief can do terrible things to a person and their ability to hold onto reality. The story, however, soon descends into madness 一 with parts of the house’s architecture turning into human faces and Owen’s voice puncturing through from the other side. The film seems to take cues from such nerve-tingling films as The Entity and The Invisible Man, as Owen, or his spiritual likeness, wraps himself around her body (there are some visual effects here that are absolutely chilling) before turning unnaturally sinister.
Beth is also cursed with unsettling dreams. One night, she catches a glimpse of young women darting through the trees and foliage, leaping to their death over a cliff at the edge of the property line. In another, she traipses through the woods and discovers a house not unlike her own, only in reverse. Peering through the windows, she witnesses her own likeness, but everything is just a little askew. These visions, perhaps a manifestation of her own real-life paranoia and hopelessness, seem to suggest that photos of other women on Owen’s phone are the keys to unlock the greater mystery.
This investigation is the least interesting part of the film, though. The Night House is a carnival ride of pain, a heart-rending menagerie of depression and delusion. Owen might have been the one to kill himself, but Beth is now plagued with her own demons, which resurface in bright hot-pan flashes like landmines being tripped by thought alone. She blames herself for not doing enough and not knowing what had gone awry, turning the metaphorical blade inward upon her own body.
As the story progresses, a demonic entity reveals itself to have taken possession of Owen, certainly representative of his own struggles, leading into the fingernail-splitting finale. The last scene finds Beth taking the boat, the same boat in which Owen murdered himself, out onto the lake. There, she witnesses Owen’s final moments 一 quickly bleeding into her own life and death confrontation. Now, that same threatening being taunts Beth into killing herself. The soundtrack has all but faded, leaving only the slap of water against the metallic siding of the boat. The viewer is left to soak in this razor-sharp imagery: a blood-red backdrop floods the screen, transfixing Beth at the center of what could be her very last moment on earth.
She holds the pistol in her lap, the same pistol which killed Owen, turning it slightly, tenderly in her fingertips. She flips the barrel toward her head. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. It’s almost as if there’s a silent time-bomb nearing zero; I’ve never felt so tense in my movie-going experience, as I held back both tears and my breath, waiting for her decision. The gun yawns its mouth agape, nearly directly into the camera. Beth remains slumped over and drained of every ounce of energy she had left. There’s nothing left for her. Nothing.
With this stunningly beautiful and tragic finale, tears waiting to burst from my eyes, I saw myself. I saw myself up there on that screen. Being on the verge of death, and being the one in control of it, is something that haunts me sometimes. It haunts me every waking hour and every deep midnight slumber. When I’m quietly tucked into bed with my three cats, my thoughts are pained and tortured. It’s been 12 years since I last tried to kill myself, but that doesn’t mean my brain isn’t still clouded with depression. It’s a daily battle. Sometimes, I win. Sometimes, I lose 一 quite gloriously.
But I am alive and able to witness such masterpieces as The Night House that dig glistening talons into life’s messiest and most devastating layers. That’s the magnificence of art. It can be truly cathartic to see misery smeared like blotches of reds, blues, and yellows on otherwise porcelain canvas. To see one’s guts splayed out and mixed and treated with delicacy. It’s hard to imagine this film working for everyone (it most certainly will turn some viewers off), but there’s value in that alone. The film gives me another reason to keep on breathing 一 to bask in the beauty of filmmaking, to learn, to laugh, to dream. And to seize each new dawn as a true blessing… as Beth eventually, and triumphantly, did.
Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, you are not alone. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.