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Silent House (2012)
Last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (which it could be argued is very much a horror film itself) introduced us to the immensely talented youngest Olsen sister, Elizabeth. A marvelous actress of beauty, depth and subtlety, she was remarkable in the role of a cult member on the lam and unfairly neglected when the Oscar nominations were announced. Here she proves that performance was no fluke.
This is the second feature from Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, their follow up to very good Open Water. Open Water was released roughly around the same time as 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, an abysmal remake I had the misfortune of seeing on opening weekend. When I later had the opportunity to view Open Water, I remember thinking how much better the Texas Chainsaw reboot would have been if filmmakers of Kentis and Lau’s caliber had been involved.
The story in Silent House is simple, but the scariest usually are, aren’t they? Once upon a time… there was a young girl in the dark woods… Sarah (Olsen) is helping her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) renovate the family summer home after squatters have trashed the place – because of the damage that has been caused all of the windows are boarded up and the doors are always kept locked. Adding further inconvenience, rats have chewed through the electrical wires so that even when the sun is shining outside, lanterns are required to navigate the interior of the house. As should come as no surprise, cellphones don’t work here.
After a disagreement with Sarah’s father when a wall is punched through and toxic mold is discovered, Sarah’s uncle steps out. Almost immediately Sarah hears a noise upstairs and to assuage her worries, her father goes to investigate. Finding nothing amiss, he instructs Sarah to get to work packing up her old childhood bedroom. But this is a horror film, not Hoarders, and it isn’t long before Sarah’s father is mysteriously attacked and Sarah is left frantically trying to escape an escalating nightmare.
A classic setup, distilled to the essentials. But there is a twist – Silent House is filmed and assembled to appear as if one continuous shot occurring in real time with no obvious cuts. Previously, Alfred Hitchcock used this technique with Rope and an episode of The X-Files entitled “Triangle” was also done in the same manner. Although there have been quite a few directors who employ long takes, it is usually only for an interlude and not the entire length of a feature. Silent House is a remake of a 2010 Uruguayan film, The Silent House, which was similarly filmed. There are drawbacks and benefits to this method, especially for a horror film. This approach works to make the proceedings feel fresh and inventive, and even though the plot is assembled from entirely familiar horror elements, it helps to give the impression that we are seeing something new that feels very in the moment. Also, because the camera is constantly on Sarah (following her from an opening crane shot all the way until the end) it forces an immediate and intimate bond with the character, which Olsen’s nuanced and masterful performance only further reinforces. Yet this also strips the directors of quite a lot of artistic opportunities – the raw product they film is the raw product they put on screen, and they are not able to rely on edits to reshape a scene and do not have numerous alternate takes to fall back on and pick and choose from. The fact that they are able to create two distinctive jump scares working this way really impressed me – and I usually detest jump scares. They more often than not are the sign of a filmmaker who does not understand what is really frightening and is not capable of creating moments that are startling without loud musical cues and characters entering suddenly from out of frame. It’s a lazy ploy that distracts more than delights or disturbs, but here they are played almost sarcastically and subvert expectations – as with the rest of the film this is an example of the directors taking a worked over horror cliche and utilising it in a way that is completely different from what anyone else is doing with it. We need more filmmakers like these two in horror.
Their nimble touch transforms the very story itself. I did see the original Silent House – for a film that was shot in such a formidible way it is remarkably stale and slight. Kentis and Lau are able to wrestle the thornier, awkward issues of that film’s climax into a more lucid and aware conclusion. And so we come to… the ending…
Audiences seem to unanimously hate the ending, although this kind of “twist” is hardly unprecedented and has been done so many times now it can hardly even be classified as a twist any longer. Indeed it is the only film I’ve ever attended where there was (unenthusiastic) booing as the end credits rolled. I had no problem with the ending myself. Keep in mind that I did have some reasonable expectations of how it was going to go down having seen the original film. The bottom line is that the ending works, it makes sense, it is sharp and shrewd – it just simply isn’t the ending audiences wanted nor is it what you could classify as a satisfying resolution – but it doesn’t cheat us. Most likely the reason it has met with such aversion is because of the character of Sarah herself and how much we sympathize with her and become invested in her plight – which is just more testament to Olsen’s acting and the talent of the filmmakers. It is during the final denouncement that Olsen is really given a chance to shine and shine she does. Without her multifaceted portrayal there is no way of knowing how effective this film would be. Watching a terrified young woman run around a mostly empty house for nearly an hour and a half can be incredibly dull (see the original if you don’t believe me) but Olsen is continually stepping up her performance and exhibits an exquisite range of fear. She is deserving of every bit of praise she receives.
This is not a horror film for when you’re in the mood for fun, cheap scares. This is one of those films that burrows into your system and you will find yourself thinking about for days afterwards, whether you liked it or not. It gestates within you. From the very beginning there is a strong, troubling undercurrent that cannot be attributed simply to the genre. The directors are working at something deeper and altogether more disturbing here, but even when their endgame is revealed it never feels sleazy or exploitative.
There were so many scenes I enjoyed, with an almost unbearable sequence in the basement as Sarah hides from something that looks to be not entirely human and a later bit involving her use of a Polaroid camera to illuminate and navigate a pitch black room, being highlights. I also relished the portion of the film after Sarah has managed to escape and encounters her uncle – their dialogue outside and when they return to the house is especially entertaining. There is a moment in which Sarah hides under a table as her pursuer circles, in which Olsen lets out a soundless scream – it is brief and inconsequential to the story but I found it brilliant, and wondered if it was a choice the actress made or something the filmmakers instructed her to do.
Silent House is not without its flaws, but the filmmakers really did their homework and have created a slippery, scary final product that is a major improvement over the original – don’t be surprised if it goes on to eventually be considered a minor classic. B