High Spirits | Film Reviews | Salt Lake City Weekly

High Spirits 

The Night House uses a ghost story to dig into perhaps too many psychological subjects.

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In recent years, the notion of a subgenre called "elevated horror" has been making the rounds—which is pretty insulting if you stop to think about the history of horror for more than half a second. True, horror cinema in particular has been, at various times and for various reasons, a place for low budgets, exploitation and bad taste, but the building blocks of what we think of as horror come from far more fascinating places. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein delved into the ethics of creating life; Bram Stoker's Dracula created fertile metaphorical ground involving forbidden sexuality; Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekkyl and Mr. Hyde acknowledged the capacity for brutality within all of us. Maybe it's better to call the vulgar shit "submerged horror," and give plain ol' "horror" its due for plumbing psychological depths just as rich as "respectable" drama.

Ghost stories in particular tend to have their own complicated subtext, often involving grief and guilt, like Nicholas Roeg's classic Don't Look Now. For a while, The Night House feels like it's going to become a part of that legacy. Then it pivots towards another kind of psychological territory. Then maybe kind of pivots again. And as ambitious as the attempt is, it's not clear that all those things work together.

It begins with Beth (Rebecca Hall), a schoolteacher in upstate New York, dealing with the recent death by suicide of her husband of nearly 15 years, Owen (Evan Jonigkeit). Now living alone in the lakeside home that architect Owen built for them, Beth starts to experience strange sounds and visions that may or may not be dreams. As she starts to dig into the things that Owen left behind, she begins to discover parts of his life that he'd been hiding from her—parts that suggest a darker person than the one she knew.

The earliest scenes revolve around Beth's response to being completely blind-sided by Owen taking his own life. Hall has a gift as an actor for brittle ferocity, and she digs deep into Beth's readiness to lash out in response to feeling confused and abandoned, conveyed most effectively when she is unwilling to play nice with the passive-aggressive suggestion by the mother of one of her students that Beth should raise his grade. The screenplay—by the team of Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski—allows Beth to be a kind of walking case study in the "anger" stage of grief, fueled by the realization that she didn't know her husband well enough to think he was capable of such a thing.

That realization grows as Beth finds more evidence of Owen's possible double-life—including photos of women who seem to look a lot like her—and begins to believe that his spirit may be haunting their house. Here the subtext gets a bit thornier, but at least still feels mostly of a piece with what has come before. The Night House takes the idea of ghosts and applies it to the need for closure, the hope that the dearly departed might have something more to say that could explain the seemingly unexplainable. Director David Bruckner supplies some of the requisite genre trappings of ominous reflections and things literally going bump in the night, but the story remains anchored in the realization that a lot of ghost stories are about spirits that someone wants to stick around, rather than go away.

The Night House seemed to be on solid spooky ground, until there's a different emphasis on Beth's own state of mind. Through a back-story about a near-death experience Beth had as a teenager, the story introduces the subject of Beth's nihilistic view of the afterlife, and tries to connect it to her own hinted-at depression—which has potential, but gets overwhelmed by the unnecessarily complicated occult mythology the movie tries to build. There's a story here about the people left wounded by a suicide, and a story about trying to fight off the demons that lead to suicide. Horror doesn't have to be "elevated" to find rich material in such topics, but it should, if everything is going to come together most effectively, ultimately pick a lane.

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