Directed by Chris Kentis, Laura Lau
Screenplay by Laura Lau
Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, Eric Sheffer Stevens
How long is Silent House? 88 minutes.
What is Silent House rated? R for disturbing violent content and terror.
A Poisoned Treat For Sick Puppies
Silent House is a fairly faithful re-staging of the Uruguayan horror thriller La Casa Muda, directed by Gustavo Hernández. In both films, a young woman and her father are fixing up a dilapidated family vacation home to sell it, only to discover secret horrors lurking in its dark corners. The scenario tidily seals its characters in a dilapidated, multi-level house with no phones or electricity, and uncertain means of exit. No good can come of that, as anyone who has seen a movie, or (heaven forbid) actually been trapped in a scary house, will know.
As far as Silent House goes in the remake department, those responsible have managed to pull the original film apart gently, sand off some rough corners, grease a few rusty plot twists, and present the humble horror tale in a more palatable form. Writer and co-director Laura Lau apparently realized that while La Casa Muda had several important scares worth preserving, the audience might appreciate a little more to digest.
Elizabeth Olsen’s performance is a show of strength, and without it the inelegant plot would scuttle this little thriller for sure. Her promising debut in Martha Marcy May Marlene seems to have been no fluke, and she is a lovely young woman to boot. This film may be a trick – a collection of long takes meticulously disguised as one eighty-six minute shot, but there is no doubt that she had to simulate grueling physical and emotional distress in large gulps. The seamlessness of her work maintains the illusion equally well or better than the admittedly skillful photography.
Unlike its too-guarded predecessor, Silent House begins laying out hints from the beginning, which eases the transition into some ungraceful but certainly tolerable plot twists. We learn early on that protagonist Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) has some distraction weighing on her mind. It seems to be more of a nagging feeling than an active memory, as the appearance of her childhood friend Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross) reveals. Whatever its nature, Sarah’s manifest anxiety puts her nicely on edge for the strange things that soon follow.
Family relations are already strained at the beginning of the story, ostensibly by the frustration of clearing out and repairing a moldy, neglected house. Sarah and her dad are tiptoeing around each other, and her uncle Peter has stormed off in a huff. Then suspicious noises begin to issue from upstairs. Dad goes to investigate and wanders off into the dark. Uh-oh! Before long it is up to Sarah to discover the source of the disturbance on her own, and it is a mighty spooky chore. As in most movies of the kind, the big question eventually changes from “What’s going on?” to “Why don’t you just LEAVE?” In reply, the movie begins to get a little bendy and surreal, suggesting that, as any of us may feel in a nightmare, perhaps something will not let her leave. Whatever is up, the directors have been careful to tell us that this terrifying ordeal was not meant for just anyone. Somehow, it is all about Sarah.
In parts, the movie operates on the level of a ghost story. Bad things that have happened somewhere, rather than dissipating with time, tend to linger and fester there, breeding more evil consequences for those who stray too close. It is nice to see an American film flirting with this idea on its own terms without borrowing visual elements from The Grudge. By the way, don’t take this observation too literally when approaching the movie. Just bear it in mind.
The final act of Silent House answers all questions with one big push. In cases like this, it is impossible to discuss the importance of certain events or themes without blowing the big secret. While far from astounding, this movie is satisfying enough to deserve better than an internet spoiler. With its deft execution, the movie packs enough crawling dread into its middle act to cover for an undercooked conclusion. One final hint: it is not Mary-Kate and Ashley bumping around upstairs.
The most distinctive moment in the film, faithfully reproduced from its Uruguayan parent, is actually a break in the long-take format. Plunged into darkness at a critical moment, Sarah struggles to orient herself and find a handy means of escape. Having lost her lantern, she must make use of a Polaroid camera to light her way in a series of split-second flashes. The promise of something lurking in the dark, and appearing without warning, seems assured. This strengthens the pedigree of both films, as it pays tribute to the horrific first sequence of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Apparently the link was a conscious decision, at least in the case of the new film, since the narration of the theatrical trailer is another clear reference to John Larroquette’s spoken introduction to Chain Saw.
Regardless of its commercial success in theaters, Silent House will almost certainly sell DVDs on the strength of its “making of” documentary. With all reverence to the late Mr. Hitchcock, the gimmick of the one-take film has come a long way since Rope, and while we are not exactly in Russian Ark territory, the illusion works. Like Josh Trank’s Chronicle, Silent House finds something constructive to do with a handheld camera rather than re-enact the climax of any given installment of Paranormal Activity.
The rehearsals for this film must have been fascinating to watch and grueling to experience. There is little fault to find with the choreography, which has a lot to prove when it must effectively take the place of editing. On a technical level, this film surely required lots of editing, but to remove any perceptible “cuts” from the action meant saying goodbye to conventional cinematic storytelling. Performance and staging become everything. D. W. Griffith would probably have been offended by this film, but despite his technical prowess he is known to have offended a few people himself.
At the finish line, Silent House steps on a number of narrative land mines – conceits that simply have no business in a serious horror story anymore. The big secret behind Sarah’s terrifying experience will probably elicit more than one disappointed frown from the audience. However, the ultimate moral (using the term flexibly) is sufficiently grave to anchor the story against a less than stellar conclusion. For a more refined example of the ultra-compact, alone-in-the-dark thriller, you can scarcely do better than the 2006 French film Ils. However, for casual horror hobbyists, Silent House is worthwhile fare with plenty of atmosphere. Furthermore, it promises Elizabeth Olsen future prestige as a scream queen, if she feels so inclined.