It takes Rebecca Hall less than a minute to establish herself as the voice of icy authority in Resurrection (2022), and she does it without even appearing onscreen. When the film begins, her character, Margaret, is out of frame as she talks to a young intern puzzled by her boyfriend’s behaviour. “He makes these jokes that are kind of…cutting?” says the girl, unsure of herself. “He makes jokes at your expense,” says Margaret, flatly. She isn’t asking. There’s a precision in the way she cuts through the intern’s haze of indecision over her relationship, a harsh clarity with which she reframes it as an abusive one. When the camera finally pans to Margaret, her face softens, she exudes maternal warmth and she insists, simply, “You should find someone who makes you feel good.”
Cinema has long mined this duality of Hall’s onscreen persona, that blend of formidable yet achingly fragile. Few, however, use it as potently as the horror films she’s been in, understanding that the terror of watching a person’s psyche shatter under strain only intensifies when you’re grown accustomed to the steeliness of their resolve. Resurrection and The Night House (2020), especially, present portraits of women who refuse to give an inch because, as they reveal, so much has been taken from them already. Both films pivot on ambiguity and creeping doubt. Both find Hall’s characters grasping at unanswered questions. And both, two of the finest horror movies in recent times, lean heavily on the strength of her performance.
Resurrection, in particular, files Margaret’s sharp edges until they begin to resemble a barbed wire keeping her white picket fence-existence safe. What would be the comforts of routine to anyone else have morphed into a punishing regimen for her. The rigidity of her posture, the crispness of her suits, the deathgrip of control she exerts over her life — all point to a woman desperately overcompensating for a part of her life at which she felt utterly powerless.
Contrast the brutal, yet measured pace of her daily runs to a scene in which she stumbles out of a conference hall in abject terror, breathing unevenly when she spots someone she’s spent a lifetime hiding from. In a later, seven-minute-long monologue delivered with the kind of devastating clarity that only comes from hindsight, Margaret reveals exactly who this is. At 18, she met an artist, David Moore (Tim Roth), who groomed and took advantage of her, escalating to acts of emotional and then physical violence. Hall’s face is so haunting, her narration so compelling in its horrific detail that it takes a while to notice that the background has blurred into darkness, a physical manifestation of the spectre haunting her. Now, 22 years later, David has returned, and in claiming to have the baby Margaret lost all those years ago, is as skilled as manipulating her as he was back then.
As Margaret begins to exhibit increasingly unstable behavior, and as David demands in exchange for keeping her child safe, the film blurs the lines between his expertise at mind games and her genuinely losing her mind. Hall’s expert performance as a woman so tightly coiled, she can’t help but unravel is crucial to rendering her character deserving of sympathy throughout. Margaret’s shuttered expressions and refusal to let her guard down are how she’s managed to stay safe all these years, but her refusal to be vulnerable and let others in on her backstory is what renders her incomprehensible to her daughter, Abbie (Grace Kaufman), who begins to find her behaviour stifling.
At what point does a fierce desire to protect turn into the desperate need to control? Margaret can’t tell the difference, installing locks on all the doors and ordering Abbie not to leave the house. Her slide into full-blown paranoia would be frightening if it wasn’t so tragic. Despite the inherent absurdity of the premise, the idea that a child could be alive and still a child 22 years later, Margaret’s tenuous hope and the sheer relief that floods her face when she thinks she can hear him makes the narrative real in its urgency. The maternal instinct that Hall tapped into to exude warmth at the beginning of the film is the same one that defines her full-blown ferocity. Even as writer-director Andrew Semans toys with the audience’s perceptions of whether what they’re watching is real, it’s Hall’s tragic conviction that makes them want to believe.
If Resurrection’s Margaret is a boarded-up house built on a shaky foundation, then The Night House’s Beth (Hall) is crumbling by the time it takes the opening credits to roll. When Beth’s husband killed himself, he took her reason for living with him, rendering the film a haunting examination of what happens to a life that’s been marked by profound loss. Hall plays the schoolteacher as a live wire, prone to electrocuting anyone who displays a thoughtlessness in approaching her but no less susceptible to a few painful jolts herself. “My husband shot himself in the head last Thursday,” she blankly tells a woman angling for a better grade for her son, adopting a sardonic smirk to fill her in on all the grisly details, but the frantic haste which with she rams a wedding photo into a drawer and out of sight moments later conveys a well of suppressed hurt.
The film immerses viewers into the warmth of Beth and her late husband’s home videos before abruptly cutting to her stony expression as she watches them in the present. Love has curdled into resentment, memories filed away as sites of potential evidence in Beth’s mind. There’s no comfort or closure here, only the all-consuming need to know why. Hall brings gnawing rage to her portrayal of grief, shaping Beth’s cutting sarcasm into a defense mechanism that masks a deep self-loathing. She’s shaken by the suspicion that her depression might have taken its toll on her late husband too.
There’s a bitterness that accompanies Beth’s unanswered questions, but also a loneliness that defines life in a now too-vast house. When she begins to feel a presence at home, she’s less frightened by the thought of her husband’s ghost than fuelled by the prospect of finally getting to confront him. Hall’s performance, poised between fury and fragility, goes a long way in explaining Beth as a woman who goes against genre conventions, chasing after the spectres in her house when the ones in her mind won’t let her sleep. To a woman this far gone, even the touch of a phantom hand from beyond the grave feels as welcoming as any lover’s embrace.
Much of the film navigates the contours of physical space but Hall’s brittle vulnerability is the key to its detours into Beth’s mental space. The character might be unsettled by the loneliness of her home, but the film suggests she’s been unsafe in her own mind for far longer. As Beth discovers that her husband might not have been the person she thought he was, The Night House retains its horror roots while playing out like a thriller. Every scene builds suspense, each new clue will have viewers trying to decode the central mystery. What's more terrifying — to have someone you love abruptly snatched away from you? Or to discover you're now safer with them gone? Both revelations are crushing, and The Night House does a fine job laying the groundwork and leaving viewers to decide for themselves.