This week sees the arrival of two horror films with more in common than might be apparent on the surface. Censor arrives fresh from acclaim at this year’s Sundance, both Utah and London, while The Night House made its debut at last year’s Sundance and gets its UK premiere this week at Edinburgh, before reaching cinemas at the end of the week. And that’s just the start ….
In David Bruckner’s latest horror, Beth (Rebecca Hall) is newly widowed and trying to get used to a more solitary life. She lives in a lakeside house, designed and built by her husband, so the sense that his spirit is built into every timber and every joint is inescapable. But as she starts to going through his effects, she discovers a side to his life – and his character – that she never knew about. Plans for another house in the woods and the possibility of another woman in his life come as a shock and set her on the road to digging further into his life so she can come to terms with her grief and move on.
Like Censor, it’s a psychological horror with a traumatised woman at its heart, one where the shattering event hasn’t been fully addressed and where the lines between reality and illusion become increasingly blurred. But the film’s multitude of references to other horror genres mean it’s also a variation on the haunted house theme, a study of grief and depression, a gothic horror, a ghost story, an examination of death …. the list goes on and all are valid viewpoints. That there are so many potential interpretations runs the risk of dampening the film’s impact, but such is Bruckner’s skill in creating a sinister atmosphere that it doesn’t get in the way. If anything, it adds to the enjoyment.
His lean approach to making the film increases its intensity and gives the jump scares – traditionalists won’t be disappointed – extra frisson. Hall is at the centre of everything: hardly ever off the screen, she has minimal dialogue, relying instead on her facial expressions and body language to communicate her torment and confusion. It’s an arresting performance, one full of anguish and a longing for a truth that she also fears. The tight-knit cast is well chosen, with good supporting turns from Stacy Martin as the possible other woman and Vondie Curtis-Hall as Beth’s concerned neighbour. And the settings are kept to a minimum, as is the lighting, creating a sense of claustrophobia, even when Beth ventures out into the surrounding woods.
All of which sets up the narrative for a shattering climax. But the script’s breadcrumbs are scattered liberally enough for us to have more than an inkling of what’s to come so, by the time the credits roll, there’s a sense of deflation, the need for one final jump scare that we simply don’t get. Bruckner lets us off the hook, and we didn’t want to escape.
Horror, Thriller | 15 | Edinburgh International Film Festival, 19 August 2021 | Cinemas, 20 August 2021 | Walt Disney Studios |Dir. David Bruckner | Rebecca Hall, Stacy Martin, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Sarah Goldberg, Evan Jonigkeit.