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What's more terrifying: the threat of the supernatural or the depths of the damaged human mind?
Director David Bruckner (Southbound, V/H/S, The Ritual) introduced his intense psychological horror film The Night House on Saturday to the Sundance crowd as an examination of that very question. "Your take on the film may have a little to do with what you find more frightening -- the idea that ghosts actually exist, or the realization that they don't."
The film stars Rebecca Hall (The Awakening) as Beth, a schoolteacher reeling in the aftermath of her husband's sudden death, who slowly starts to feel a haunting presence in their lake house that blurs the lines between dreams and reality and leads her into a dark and dangerous mystery that she feels compelled to resolve. Bruckner described the script from Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski as one that wouldn't leave him alone.
"I found it confounding in the best way," he said. "There was this puzzle box, this maze that I could never quite get to the bottom of ... We had many debates and differing theories about how you can interpret the film, and we tried our best to support several of those interpretations simultaneously. I'm still arguing myself about what's real, what's not, where the dream ends and where reality begins."
Piotrowski explained that he and Collins were trying to subvert the genre tropes with this particular story. "When you have a supernatural story, that promises the afterlife. That promise is that the existence of a demon kind of suggests the existence of a god, and there's a comfort in even the most terrifying horror conceits. So I think we wanted to play with the supernatural, but in a way that didn't give you that safety."
The movie is an examination of grief's effect on the psyche as much as it is a story of the dead terrorizing the living, as Beth occasionally seems like more of a threat to herself than any ghost during her dark and lonesome moments. "I'm always trying to get the worst, anxious, long, spiraling nights on camera," Bruckner said. "I just think it's appropriate for the horror genre. Horror is a way of processing anxiety in all its various forms."
For her part, Hall was fascinated by the despair in Beth's state of mind in response to her husband's senseless death. "What would your mind construct to find a reason why? I think that's a really interesting idea because, personally, I suspect that madness and not being aware of it is probably my deepest fear."
The Night House, from David Goyer's Phantom 4 Films, is currently screening in the Midnight category of the Sundance Film Festival.