Hitting theaters next week, David Bruckner’s “The Night House” is a psychological horror with all the dials cranked up to 11, an unsettling exploration of grief and mortality that matches the intensity of that subject matter with brutal jump-scares, nerve-rattling sound design, and enough menacing ambience to keep your stomach in knots.
At its center is Beth (Rebecca Hall), a grieving widow who lives alone in the spacious lakeside home her husband had built before his death. When otherworldly forces call out, Beth listens, searching through her husband’s possessions for answers. But as a supernatural presence begins to warp the architecture of her home in frightening ways, Beth realizes how dangerous it could be to solve this mystery.
Bruckner first arrived on the horror scene in 2007, co-writing and co-directing one third of prescient techno-horror “The Signal,” and he went on to deliver standout segments in anthologies “V/H/S” (2012) and “Southbound” (2016). But it was Bruckner’s feature directorial debut, 2017’s survival horror “The Ritual,” that cemented him as a talent on the rise; while playing up the arcane spookiness of its Scandinavian-wilderness setting, it crawled inside its characters’ heads to deliver a surreal, nightmarish story of male friendship and fragility.
“The Night House” finds Bruckner honing this fascination with the interplay between internal psychology and external atmosphere – even as the project marks an escalation for him in terms of technical savvy and dramatic force. As Hall’s increasingly unmoored Beth races to separate dreams from reality, Bruckner blurs that distinction further with mirrored images and shadow play. “The Night House” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where Searchlight Pictures pounced to acquire the film for $12 million. And though many titles meant to hit theaters last year instead shifted to streaming, it makes sense why Searchlight held onto this one. Dread-soaked, armed to the teeth with punishing scares, and elevated by Hall’s dynamic performance, “The Night House” is built to be seen with a crowd.
On the heels of the film’s Canadian premiere at the Fantasia Festival, and ahead of a wide theatrical bow next Friday, I spoke to Bruckner about architectural fear and why he responds to the dream logic that’s fueled his films to date and will influence his reboot of Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser.”
I understand that you’re currently out of the country at the moment. Is that vacation, or are you filming?
We are getting moving on “Hellraiser.”
That’s fantastic. And I’m happy to hear that. That must be quite an undertaking.
It certainly is, but this is a dream come true for a horror guy like myself. I’ve been a huge Barker fan since I was just getting into horror films, and it’s an incredible universe to tap into. And there’s really no end to it. I share the enthusiasm of any “Hellraiser” fans who feel like there’s really no recreating the original film, but, you know, we would all like to open the box again, and look into that universe. We just feel like there are more stories to tell there.
Given that the film premiered at Sundance in 2020 and you’re already onto the next project, what’s that process like, of getting your head back in time to talk about “The Night House” while also staying grounded with this production?
It’s bizarre! But I will say there are certain similarities where the material is concerned. You know, Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, who wrote “The Night House,” took inspiration [from “Hellraiser”] for the draft. In some ways, they called “The Night House” “the ‘Hellraiser’ movie they would never get to make,” in that it had certain parallels – tonal if nothing else. There’s a certain synergy between all these ideas, and there’s a mind-bending quality to “The Night House” that translates well to “Hellraiser.” In some ways, it’s treading familiar terrain, but it’s also completely new.
Anytime you finish up a film and look back, you’re always trying to see it as if for the first time. It’s bizarre to have premiered “The Night House” at Sundance over a year and a half ago. And then one pandemic later, and still going, it feels like a completely different universe to look back on.
“The Night House” and “Hellraiser” are linked by this nightmare logic. “The Ritual” had it, too, this dreamlike sense of something on the other side that’s scary in a profound way. What appeals to you about horror with deep darkness and despair?
With “The Night House,” I honestly was just genuinely frightened by the screenplay. And I don’t often get frightened when I watch horror films. I have a great regard for many of them, and I can have quite an emotional experience, but fear in a very primitive way… I’m rarely chilled from seeing something. And some of that’s just being older. Some of that is seeing through the artifice of the films, because you’re always thinking about the films themselves. But this script really tapped into something that was unresolved in myself and just genuinely scared me. This character is reckoning with meaninglessness in a way that is real, and spoken about in the film with such stark frankness by Beth. I was troubled by the script after reading it. And over time, I realized that really had to be a reason to make it. On set, there were lots of philosophical conversations about confronting nothing, confronting the essence of meaning, and asking tough questions about life, death, and the afterlife. It was unsettling enough to compel us to continue.
There’s a connection between that questioning structures of our reality and the structure of “The Night House” as a film involving architecture and the emotions it’s imbued with. The way you shot this criss-crossing, maze-like house communicates that same malevolent emptiness. How did you approach visualizing that idea?
That was a huge part of the draw as well. Houses and spaces, the geography of a space, can be such a great metaphor for the mind. In this case, we also talked about it as a symbol for the marriage: the idyllic picture of the house, as constructed by Beth’s late husband, was a fix for some of their difficulties and emotional issues that they had faced. In some ways, this was supposed to be something that saved them from themselves. And, of course, they encounter the inverse version of it: the idea that something’s gone wrong, the bad version of this geography and this space. Something about that made a real intuitive sense. Once we’d cemented what the metaphors were for us, it set us free. Our production designer, Kathrin Eder, and myself spent time thinking about how to train the audience to learn the geography of the house in subtle ways.
Early shots in the film just carry you through the space effortlessly, poking and prodding the audience to build a model in their head of what the environment was like, so that we could begin to change it over time. Not in huge ways, but just in small ways. Sometimes, we were too subtle. I don’t know that everybody notices every single dimensional change in every single room. We were trying to find the line, but you have a little faith that, on a subconscious level, something feels wrong or out of place. You can’t put your finger on it. We were empowered to play with that, to think of changing spaces as a picture of changing or spiraling minds.
In terms of mapping out the house’s geography, then playing with that perception, I’m sure “The Shining” and its use of architecture was a reference point. What were your main influences?
“Room 237” – the Rodney Ascher film, with its conspiracy theories about what “The Shining” really means – is truly inspiring. There’s this one [part] I saw in the documentary that very enthusiastic fans had actually mapped out the Overlook Hotel, based on the shots in the film, and then concluded that there was an impossible window in the hotel. And, of course, [they think Stanley] Kubrick must have planned it and knew that the impossible window would throw us for some subconscious loop. Obviously, if you’ve made a film, then you know things are much more haphazard, the way they come together. Most of the time, you’re just pushing for coherence. And, if anything, you might be annoyed that the window is not where it’s supposed to be – if you were lucky enough to catch it. Regardless of what his intentions were, the idea that that could have been the case is certainly a delectable notion: that you could cheat a little bit and that, on some intuitive level, the audience will feel it or know it.
Another influence is not cinematic: the book “House of Leaves,” by Mark Z. Danielewski. It was a huge inspiration and an early conversation point between myself, Ben Collins, and Luke Piotrowski, even before they wrote that script. It was just this idea of geography horror being underplayed, that we haven’t seen enough of. It lends itself to cinema in so many different ways, and there’s something terrifying about it. When you think about the language of dreams, people and spaces change, and they change effortlessly when you’re in the dream state. Curiously, the goal or the target of the dream, or the narrative thrust, often will not shift. But the person that you’re negotiating with to get there, or the room you’re in to solve a problem, will often evolve in a way that’s somewhat unnoticed.
The interview continues on the next page…