We’ve all seen a haunted house, in a movie or an amusement park. Usually it’s a big Gothic or Victorian-style home, probably from a time before now. Those seem like places to find ghosts or vengeful spirits. But modern homes can have just as much bad energy, without the expectation of it. David Bruckner‘s new film The Night House explores how a home of any kind can feel sinister given the right harrowing circumstance. We spoke to Bruckner and screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski at Sundance about what goes in to making a new haunted house classic.
Bruckner told us he couldn’t get the script out of his head the first time he read it. “There are concepts in it that are difficult to reckon with,” he said. “[Things] you know, from my own life that genuinely scared me. I thought that these guys created a labyrinth; a movie that I couldn’t really tell where the dream ends and where reality begins. And I sort of always wanted to get to the bottom of it and I never could in a way. It really stuck with me.”
“It came as almost like a reaction,” Collins said of their script. “First and foremost because we had been in a period of like trying to get studio jobs. In doing so, we bent over backwards to fit to what other people had decided a horror movie should be. You you come up with so many original ideas as part of your pitch. And then they like none of it. Then you have these leftover ideas that you really liked.”
Piotrowski added, “So we decided let’s take the bits and pieces of other projects where people said ‘no, you can’t do that,’ and do all of them.”
While The Night House sits firmly in the ghost and haunted house horror subgenre, the writers explained they put in different influences from all over the spectrum. “For me,” Piotrowski explained, “Arthur Machen, who was sort of, before Lovecraft, a weird fiction writer. There’s a story called ‘The White People’ that’s from the point of view of a little girl. It’s a stream of consciousness of her nanny forcing her to join a cult and take part in all these occult practices. It’s just the best occult story I’ve ever read. It has little offhand references to walking a certain pattern in a maze and the power that has.”
Collins shared that some of their other influences came not from literature but from music. “There’s a band called Current 93 that references a lot of that [cosmic occult] stuff in their lyrics. That became a reference point as well.” And, of course, ’70s horror movies remain a big inspiration to many a filmmaker these days. “Everybody says that,” Collins continued, “but I think we were really trying to figure out how to make something that would feel like one of those movies, not in like a throwback way or a nostalgic, faking it way, but how can we make something that feels authentic to that vibe.”
The titular abode of The Night House is very specifically a modern-style home on a lake like you’d see in a magazine. Making it seem both normal and foreboding was one of the keys to its success. “I really ran with the architecture thread that was in the script,” he explained. “In terms of building the imagery, it was making the house like a maze of sorts. Let’s take that quite literally and push it as far as we can.”
In the movie, Beth (Rebecca Hall)’s husband commits suicide and it’s his possible spectral presence that drives the activity in the movie. The husband built the house himself, and Bruckner said he wanted the house to feel like an extension of this man. “There’s kind of a subtle, uncomfortable patriarchal vibe that runs through it,” he explained. “He kept things from her; she’d had emotional problems earlier in her life. So there’s sort of a suggestion that he designed a way out, literally and figuratively. The house becomes a metaphor for their marriage and relationships in so many different ways.”
As scenic as the home is, the filmmakers wanted to make sure it felt foreboding as well. It’s as an extension of the husband character. “We love the idea,” Bruckner continued, “that [the husband] built something that was idyllic. There was this beautiful vantage point of this vast lake, but that there’s something almost otherworldly around on it. Across the lake there’s a forest was no other houses. There’s something it’s a little bit River Styx. So there was always this idea of something that was serene and beautiful; at the same time had something sinister just under the surface.”
Throughout the movie we get references to the mirror image of things and how strange and off putting they can be. Whether it be a house or a person. This, Piotrowski explained, is where the idea for the title came. “Your house at night is different than your house in the day. And the night house, when you wake up and everyone else is asleep, or if you live alone and the lights are off, and it’s quiet, your thoughts are different, your feelings or your emotions are different. And [in the movie] that’s compounded by the fact that this is a house that somebody else used to live in, and now he’s not there.”
“So, ‘the night house,'” Collins continued, “that place that we all go when you wake up in the middle of night. You sort of feel like ‘yeah, I’m gonna die someday,’ then you sort of have these thoughts, half asleep and half awake, and it’s like, ‘oh, my God, I’m having an existential crisis,'” Piotrowski summed it up, “the mirrored house is this familiar space, that’s wrong.”
Logistically, this led to some issues in production. They shot partially in an existing house and partially on a soundstage. How do you make a house feel like it’s shifting and strange when some of it is someone’s actual house? “This was deceptively complex,” Bruckner shared. “Even just the mirrored ideas and ways we were shooting the existing house. Whether we flop the image or we build parts of it in reverse. There were there were plenty of brain teasers on set where we were not really sure we were getting it right.”
“Early in the film,” the director continued, “there are sequences that are designed to subtly teach you, potentially, the geography of the house. So that later, we can start to change things and shift them in a way. But I find that you know, just in getting feedback from people, it’s the amount of geographical imprint that you’re able to put together when you watch a movie like this varies greatly from audience to audience.”
There are many, many more secrets and alcoves within The Night House to explore, and ones we certainly won’t give away here. But when the movie sees major release, rest assured Nerdist will dig in to every alcove and nook.
Featured Image: Phantom Four