By Steven Harrison Gibbs.
For nearly a decade, the horror genre seems to have been stuck in an immense black hole, from which has seeped a rank plague of remakes – be they of American classics or foreign sensations. On rare occasion, there might be a faint whiff of creativity that breaks out of the darkness to linger briefly in the air, but its sweet aroma often passes unnoticed amid the stench of hackneyed efforts. However, as a staunch enthusiast of the genre I tend to set aside my reservations more often than not, hoping that within familiar frames there lurks that elusive originality. A new hopeful has emerged in Silent House, a rarity of another sort in that it is an independent remake of a relatively obscure Uruguayan film, La Case Muda (Gustavo Hernández, 2010). As was the case with its predecessor, the allure of Silent House, helmed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau – the duo behind Open Water (2003), is that it transpires in real time and in what appears to be one continuous shot.
The setup is simple enough: a young woman, Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), is helping her father, John (Adam Trese), and her uncle, Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), in preparing their old lakeside house for sale. The windows are boarded up and the power is shut off, so the only sources of light inside the immense house are flashlights and lanterns (and perhaps that Polaroid camera, too, if all else fails), and the only apparent exit is through the front door (which conveniently locks with a key on the inside). After a brotherly quarrel results in Uncle Peter driving into town to cool off for a while, things start to get interesting, though sometimes downright odd. First, there is a knock at the door, which Sarah answers and is greeted by Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross), a woman living nearby who claims to be a childhood friend of hers. This is merely the first of the many red flags raised without the least bit of subtlety. In this case, it is not the fact that Sarah does not remember her, but that Sophia is just weird. This does not appear to faze Sarah, though, and she agrees to meet with her later to talk more.
Then, as evening is settling in, Sarah is shaken when she hears noises emanating from upstairs and convinces her father to investigate. Finding nothing, he leaves Sarah to clean up in one room while heading to another, declaring, “I’ll be right back.” The last time I can remember a character saying those words in a horror film and showing up again – alive and well, mind you – was in Scream (1996). That hardly counts, though, because it was Stu (Matthew Lillard) who said it, and he turned out be one of the killers (not to mention he received his due comeuppance before the end of the film anyways). So, it comes as no surprise when Sarah hears a loud thud and traces it to its origin only to find her father unconscious with a nasty head wound. Since there is no landline phone, or cell reception, Sarah decides to leave the house to go for help. Unfortunately, the lone key to the front door (which had been hanging next to it) is missing, and why would it not be? She makes her way back to her father to see if he has the key on him, but he has disappeared, and Sarah soon realizes that she is not alone in the house.
It is at this point that I began to get frustrated with Silent House more often than not. For starters, Sarah is being pursued by someone, yet there are moments where she appears to forget this crucial piece of knowledge and moves noisily around the house in her efforts to find an alternate means of escape. It is not as aggravating as its predecessor, which had the main character wandering around the house almost casually, but it was nonetheless a hindrance to my engagement. Then there are the Polaroid photographs that are shielded from Sarah on two separate occasions by her father and then her uncle, their demeanors practically oozing awkwardness. By the time Sarah stumbles into a bathroom of horrors – among which is a wall-mounted toilet dripping blood from its bowl – many will likely have deduced what cards the filmmakers are holding, as Silent House lacks the finesse to use its many tells to its advantage. Thus the turn in the finale of the film falls mostly flat, and regardless of whether or not you see it coming, its very nature seems to alienate an audience more than anything else. Still, it is a step above La Casa Muda, which was much too vague in its revelations; in Silent House, things are spelled out much more clearly. Regardless, it is the nature of these reveals that made them disappointing in La Casa Muda, not their ambiguity, and that much remains unchanged.
Despite its faults, Silent House is not unworthy of some praise. The illusion of being shot in one continuous take is a remarkable achievement, and while I noticed a few of the more obvious areas in which a cut could be made (such as when the frame is enveloped in total darkness), I was otherwise awestruck at its seamlessness. There is one scene near the end of the film that is particularly impressive, concerning alternating actor placement as the camera rotates around them, but to discuss it in specific detail would be to spoil whatever surprise some viewers may find in the ending. Also worth noting is Elizabeth Olsen, who recently had her breakthrough role in Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011). She does what she can with the material, delivering a stalwart performance that carries the film more so than its aesthetic gimmick. The frame is constantly following Olsen wherever she goes, frequently edging its way into close-ups that allow her to shine with harrowing, expressive displays of fear, her silent screams resonating far truer than the disposable jump scares. With long takes requiring her to stay in character for extended periods of time, her role is no doubt a demanding one, but she never fails to be as convincing as possible; she is simply a pleasure to watch.
Overall, I would consider this new Silent House to be a more worthwhile film than the one that inspired it, but that would not be much in the way of a compliment, as it suffers from similar shortcomings, albeit to a somewhat lesser extent. It has all the trappings of an effective thriller, but it is flooded with red herrings that never cease in diminishing the intensity of any given moment. For me, the experience was comparable to having a fellow patron texting in the theater. After each text is read and replied to, the bright light vanishes as the phone is put away, but before too long the phone vibrates to signal another message, and the annoyance begins anew. I recognize, though, that some moviegoers are indifferent to such things, and if you count yourself among them, I might recommend giving Silent House a rental when it hits home video; perhaps you will find more to admire than I did. An audio commentary track, should it accompany the release, might be interesting.
Steven Harrison Gibbs is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Directors Chris Kenis, Laura Lau
Screenplay Laura Lau (Based on the film La Casa Muda by Gustavo Hernández)
Producers Laura Lau, Agnès Mentre
Director of Photography Igor Martinovic
Score Nathan Larson
With Elizabeth Olsen (Sarah), Adam Trese (John), Eric Sheffer Stevens (Peter), Julia Taylor Ross (Sohpia), Adam Barnett (Stalking Man), Haley Murphy (Little Girl)