The Sundance Film Festival is known for the great movies that have shown there over the years. Some tend to forget that horror is also a big part of the festival. This year’s horror slate was very impressive as some of the best movies screened were from the genre. The Night House is a trippy take on a ghost story. AIPT spoke with director David Bruckner at Sundance about his movie, tropes, and mind fucks.
AIPT: How would you describe The Night House?
David Bruckner: On the surface, The Night House is the story about a recent widow who begins to uncover the dark secrets surrounding her husband’s unexpected death.
AIPT: What was the inspiration behind the movie?
Bruckner: Well it was written by Ben Collins and Luke Petroski several years ago, and I read it in 2017 and just could not get it out of my head. And so the inspiration for me, I think there were many, many reasons why I was drawn to it. First of all, as dark as it sounds, I certainly related to the kind of harrowing anxiety spiral that the movie presented. I think that’s always a reason for horror. But I also think that it had a lot to say about, for me, how we can affect one another in a pair bond, in a relationship. And, you know, what the mutual exchanges of feelings and difficulties. I thought it had something to say about how we care for one another when we’re in a state of emotional peril. And I thought it was just a really fantastical dive into haunt tropes, and it went into some mind-bending places that for me were rather delectable.
AIPT: You have a strong horror pedigree. Have you always been a fan?
Bruckner: Always been a fan. Yeah. Didn’t expect to be making horror films exclusively, and you know, maybe I’ll do other things in the future, but right now I can’t get enough of it.
AIPT: There are horror tropes in The Night House, but you mix it effectively with a very intimate story. How did you manage to get that across who?
Bruckner:I think you’re always trying to pull from the character relationships. You’re trying to find common ground with the audience, and their conflicts, that then parlays into these horror tropes. In a lot of ways that the genre stuff is just kind of an extension of what’s already going on with the characters and so in a sense it feels very natural to me to oscillate between the two. What I like about the movie, one of things I really like about the movie, is that it sometimes holds off your expectation of how crazy it’s going to get, and then it’ll play its hand. So I like that a lot.
AIPT: Was this a conscious decision to have Owen speak so little or did it just kind of come up during the storytelling?
Bruckner: It was something that we held strong on through the development process. It would have been very easy to give him lots of backstory, exposition or flashbacks. We just thought keeping them at a remove was, for lack of a better way of putting it, classy.
AIPT: In recent years, there’s been a shift to more thoughtful horror movies. Why do you think this is?
Bruckner: Perhaps we’re just fortunate to have some really, really great movies crack open the public imagination for these kinds of films. I think there’s been some very inspired curation from a few distributors that have really helped push these kinds… Years ago we would have been able to get something like this financed, but this is movie the definitely takes advantage of that current conversation, and I think dabbles in certain kinds of experimentation more than we would have otherwise been able to do before.
AIPT: At its core, The Night House is a ghost story. Why do you think these are still endearing to people?
Bruckner: I mean I think the haunt speaks to internal conflicts better than a lot of other subgenres of horror. You know, I think the idea that something is or isn’t there necessarily, and the debate of whether or not if it’s a manifestation of your own mind or something external is something that it can very easily be captivating to an audience. And I think a lot of people carry a lot of stuff into that conversation. I think there’s a lot of believers in the world that have a lot of questions who don’t necessarily know what lives around the corner in the shadows. And I think they’re vulnerable to those kinds of explorations.
AIPT: You mentioned subgenres, and horror has more subgenres than any genre I think. What’s your favorite subgenre?
AIPT: (Laughing) And what’s an example of a mind-f--k? That’s one I’ve never heard.
Bruckner: Some people say mind bending. I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is almost a horror film, or at least it could be. I think anything that toys with reality and the psychological. I think breakdown of the world as you understand it is terrifying in a way that I can never quite get my hands around, and it’s really fascinating to me in that way.
AIPT: Yeah, that actually makes sense. The best horror movies, they kind of put doubt in the main characters, whether it’s doubt they’re going to win, or doubt in their sanity. The main character in The Night House, there’s a lot of doubt about her. How important was it to you to convey that emotion to the audience?
Bruckner: Very, very important. I would say there’s no right way to interpret the movie, obviously, and we went to great lengths to make sure that all the different ways we enjoyed reading it were available and possible. You know, it’s not a project where I have a singular take on where she ends, and where the horror begins necessarily.
AIPT: What’s your favorite ghost story, or haunted house story?
Bruckner: Turn of the Screw. You know, the original Henry James story was something that I read in my early twenties that always stuck with me, and it was really kind of fundamental, I think, for me… Narrative that ended on that question of what is and what isn’t. And I just loved the way it had the potential to linger. And then the innocence and all the different iterations that followed.
AIPT: Creators are always, always working on something. And I know right now you’re focused on The Night House, but what do you have planned for the future?
Bruckner: There’s a lot of stuff. There’s a few things I’m developing. They all have at least one foot in the horror genre. Some of it’s sci-fi horror, some of it’s body horror. I’d love to go back to folk horror. But we’ll see, I don’t know which one will spring to life first.