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Film Review: The Night House

3 September 21 words: Roshan Chandy

This horror is an exercise in silent cinema and physical language...

Director: David Bruckner
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Sarah Goldberg, Evan Jonigkeit
Running time: 110 minutes

"If they hear you, they hunt you" – that's the tagline and message for A Quiet Place and its sequel where a group of alien-like beings hunt people based on sound rather than sight. Those movies are excellent exercises in silent cinema and physical tension where actions quite literally speak louder than words. That same rhetoric is apparent in this thrilling ghost story starring the impossibly talented Rebecca Hall which again doesn't rely on cheap tricks like jump scares, but machaton actions and minimal dialogue.

The story is that Rebecca Hall is a recently widowed woman reeling from the death of her husband. He built her a house in the woods in front of a lake which she has retreated to for solitude, but she comes to believe the place might be haunted when she starts seeing writing on her bathroom windows and shower cubicles. From here, there's no bogeymen in closets or banshees in broom cupboards. The threat of the ghost is kept firmly off screen, leaving the manifestation of their appearance up to viewer's imagination – much like Roman Polanski did when he didn't show Rosemary's Baby.

Rebecca Hall's performance is a masterpiece in physical acting – an art that roots back to the days of silent slapstick comedy where Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin had to use their bodies to tell a story rather than their words. Hall doesn't do much talking in this movie, either. How can she? Especially when she's the only character for most of the movie. She has to rely on a quivering bottom lip or a tremble in the eyebrows to show the terror she's feeling at being stalked by her dead husband. It's the best female heroine performance in a horror film since Elizabeth Moss in The Invisible Man. She tells the story with her face rather than her words.

You'll come out reeling in anxiety with sweaty palms, but not because of anything you’ve been shown

The scenery is ominous and foreboding – all Alaskan woods and lakes with a sense that reality is soon to come crashing down on Hall. There's a real sense that she's trapped by her surroundings and – thanks to the minimal dialogue – the threat is merely built from a knock on the door or a creak in the floorboards. These are some of the oldest tricks in the book from the days of silent horror films like Nosfereatu where the monsters weren't shown, or not shown until the very end.

The movie is slightly too long and eventually the reveal of who the ghost is is a bit of an anticlimax. We know full well it's her husband and I kinda wanted him to look a bit less hunky than Owen Jonigkeit – we all know monsters look their best when ugly. But, then again, the fact they cast such a good-looking guy as the stalker comes to suggest that anyone can be a monster. Looks don't matter when it comes to stalking.

I loved this movie because it taps into two of the things I love most: silent cinema and physical acting. It's from that rare breed of horror where subtlety is everything, less is more, and not showing is believing. You can see the influence of the mechanics of early cinema and the inspiration from Chaplin and Keaton. You'll come out reeling in anxiety with sweaty palms, but not because of anything you’ve been shown. That's the brilliance of it.

Did you know? Hall was given almost complete freedom by director David Bruckner beyond what was written in the script. “Quite often, neither of us had any idea what I was going to do when he called action, which often led to quite raw and honest results,” she told THR. “It often led to some fairly embarrassing, silly ones, too, but they all were on the cutting room floor, thankfully.”

The Night house is in cinemas now

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