Approximately seventy-five to eighty percent of the things I appreciated about the horror film “Silent House” stem out of its technical efficiency and its production. It is made to look as though the entire 85-minutes of psychological terror is 1) shot in real time, and 2) captured in a single, continuous take of film without any quick cuts or haywire editing. The next logical step beyond the found-footage aesthetic made overwhelmingly popular by the “Paranormal Activity” series, these tactics add a sense of claustrophobia and limited perspective to the conventional horror movie, and if some of the all-time great horror classics have taught us anything, it is that less reveal equals more tension and more genuine scares.
Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, the duo responsible for 2003’s “Open Water,” direct this American remake of the Uruguay horror movie with a similar title “The Silent House.” Hmm, maybe the box office success of “Safe House” motivated a quick decision to slash ‘the’ from the title. Besides, when was the last time American audiences were frightened by definite articles? I highly doubt “Silent House” and “The Silent House” are minimalist enough to have been caught on a single 84-minute try (included are moments in which the screen goes completely black, so the film’s editors could have easily camouflaged the breaks), but it is a novel ruse that I cannot remember being done in a horror film before.
The leftover twenty-five or twenty percent after the technical quality of the picture would be awarded entirely to the lead actress Elizabeth Olsen, otherwise known as the younger sister of former child mega-stars Mary-Kate and Ashley. A meaner film critic might use the crooked compliment that she is the more talented and attractive progeny in the Olsen dynasty, but I won’t get nasty. Instead, I will subtract the family legacy from the big picture entirely and simply focus on the fact that she is an extremely gifted actress. Frankly, I haven’t even witnessed her work in last year’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” which I hear was a phenomenal breakthrough performance from her that warranted serious award season consideration. But judging solely on her acting abilities exerted in “Silent House,” I can tell she’s quite brilliant. The terror and indescribable fear she silently conveys in scenes where she has herself cornered at all angles is simply marvelous.
It is the film constructed AROUND the actress and the technical gimmicks that unnerved me. Olsen plays Sarah, an innocent girl residing at her family’s summer house, which is another one of those residences that are so clearly tailor-made for scary movies. It’s old, creaky, electricity-free, and filled with a seemingly infinite number of doors, stairways, closets, basements, nooks and crannies leading to even more doors, stairways, closets, basements, nooks and crannies. It’s a wonder anybody can located the nearest watercloset. Even a simple inspection from outside the house could tell you that the place has bad mojo written all over it. I imagine its architects did work on or drew heavy inspiration from those spooky mansions that Scooby-Doo and Mystery Inc. perused on a regular basis.
The place is being spruced up by the girl’s father John (Adam Trese) and her uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) so that it can be repackaged and resold to some other unsuspecting saps. The window areas are boarded up, making an already dark house a pitch-black labyrinth that can only be navigated with the assistance of handheld light sources. I could be mistaken, but I think something was mentioned about some punk teenagers who did structural damage to the place when nobody was home. Potential red flag number two.
The strangeness begins when the three relatives eye the basement and notice a broad gash in the wall. The father warns his daughter to back away, as he says it is releasing something bad, even deadly, into the air. Then the uncle goes out for a quick drive, leaving Sarah to wander around the house all by herself. She hears sounds: footsteps pacing, and soon banging, crashing and fumbling on the opposite sides of the wall. At one point after a horrific occurrence happens in another room, it becomes a feasible possibility that someone or something else is inside the house with the intention of doing harm to the girl. The camera continues to chase Sarah as she scrambles through the house, desperately scanning for an exit, a means of defense for herself, or a way to contact for help. Whichever resource will present itself first.
Despite the camera trick of the unbroken shot, which might have given way to a number of scary possibilities, it is not utilized to the best of its ability. A handful of moments keep the audience momentarily alert and on edge, and Olsen’s performance surely adds believability to the peril her character encounters. But when all is said and done, there is nothing lasting about the thrills or the chills. Nothing outside the commonplace Gotcha! moments or foreign objects/lurking silhouettes appearing in the background, anyways.
For most of the movie, I did not dislike it as much as I was disillusioned by the shallow ambition of the scares, and how said scares did not add up to the stellar productional strength. In describing the film’s overall quality, the word ‘workmanlike’ quickly comes to mind; it is competently made, but overall not particularly outstanding…
But then the ending had to come and compromise all the things “Silent House” truly had going for it. Cryptic imagery and mysterious figures appear early on that you’re hoping will be explained in some fashion before the film is over with. Then the third act starts incorporating surrealistic elements, and I’m hoping it wouldn’t go in the direction I thought it would. Alas, it does, and how very frustrating the resolution is. Without going into explicit spoiler territory, why couldn’t the film have just stuck to being a traditional haunting-in-a-house film instead of haphazardly tacking on a contrived ending that not only ditches the atmosphere that the first two acts were building, but ditches it in favor of the lamest and most generic thriller conclusion in the history of mankind. I know that my fellow theater patrons wanted to absorb the silence that “Silent House” had to offer, but I had to control myself from booing at the credits.