Sunday, October 7, 2012

Silent House

31 Days of Horror, Day 7
I don't know how accurate that tagline is.  "The Silence Will Kill You"?  Really?  So this is a movie about how keeping quiet kills?  Is there some sort of noise-related monster in this house?  No?  Alright, then.  Let's just consider that an awful tagline and leave it at that.  Oh, wait...I get it --- "silent" is in the title of the movie!  F+, movie tagline guy.

Silent House begins with Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) helping her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) fix up their family's old vacation home.  Well, maybe "helping" is too strong of a word; she is wandering around while daddy and uncle are renovating the house.  Their whole extended family used to use the place from time to time, but it has been years since anyone has stayed there --- and it shows!  Every window is broken and boarded up, the electricity's been off for years (don't worry, though, the electrician is coming on Monday), and the walls are cracking and show signs of water damage.  Shortly after daddy uncovers a huge mold problem in the basement drywall, the pleasant (if boring) renovation project gets put on hold.
Silent House: a better title than "Moldy Basement"
The house is locked up tight; all the doors are dead-bolted and require keys (even on the inside) and all the windows have been boarded up and nailed shut.  There is no electricity, aside from the few generators the family brought, and there is no sunlight --- most of the light comes from their flashlights.  When uncle drives to town to pick up some supplies, it leaves Sarah and daddy home alone, working in different rooms of the (creepy) (dark) (musty) house.  That's when Sarah hears someone moving in the house.  When she asks her dad about it, he dismisses her worries like a good father, but dutifully goes through the motions of checking her claim out.  And then Sarah hears a thump.  And daddy isn't responding to her calls.  Someone is in the house, and they've just knocked daddy unconscious.
Alternate explanation: he had a third shot of tequila and...floor.  Just like the T-shirts say!
Sarah tries to get out, but the doors are locked.  She tries to pry the windows open, but can't.  And she can hear the other person creeping through the house.  What is she going to do?
I don't know if assuming the crash position is the best choice here
Eventually, uncle comes home and the pair try to figure out just what the hell is going on in this house.  Is it an aggressive squatter?  Then why is he littering the floor with old Polaroid pictures?  Is it a vengeful spirit?  Then why would Sarah hear footsteps?  Or is it something else entirely?  Perhaps something slightly full of crap?  Hmm...perhaps...

I'm going to get this out of the way early.  I did not like Silent House very much, but I thought Elizabeth Olsen was pretty fantastic.  She is on camera for almost every single second of this film, and gave the best female horror performance I have seen in years.  I only qualify the gender because most female horror leading roles are shallow and obnoxious; it's not the fault of the actresses in many instances, but the material simply isn't that good.  The part of Sarah isn't anything spectacular, but Olsen captured everything she needed to in this performance.  When she had conversations, she was likable; when she was screaming, she sounded scared; when she was trying to stay quiet to avoid being murdered in the dark, she looked absolutely terrified.  It was just a surprisingly plausible performance.
Adam Trese and Eric Sheffer Stevens were not in a whole lot of the movie, but they both managed to come off as kind of creepy.  Stevens was a little more likable, but Trese's performance would have royally pissed me off if it was not for the twist at the end, which explained his character more.  And that's the nicest thing I can say about that twist.  Julia Taylor Ross also has a small part, but the nature of the character lent itself to being expressionless, so I'm not sure how good she actually was.  She looked blank easily enough.

Silent House is a remake of the Uruguayan film La Case Muda ("The Silent House").  The film is co-directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, and is the first movie either has made since the similarly themed Open Water; while only one of these movies had sharks as the villains, both were based on isolation and a single, horrible realization.  The first thing you notice about Silent House is the editing.  There doesn't appear to be any.   
No wonder she looks stressed
Silent House was shot in long, seamless takes and then pieced together so that the story could be told in real time with no apparent camera cuts.  The camera also follows Sarah around the house, so this single-take business never feels old or contrived.  I was also surprised that the filmmakers used a DSLR camera (this one) instead of a professional-grade video camera; I was just shocked that a camera you can buy in any electronics store would have video quality that good.  Kentis and Lau did a good job working with Olsen, but I also liked the simplicity they decided on with this film.  By keeping most of the film very basic, the pacing felt crisp and the terror of a home invasion felt very real.  Their choices don't always work, but this is a solid example of interesting direction.

"Interesting" doesn't always mean "good," though.  While I really liked a lot the filmmakers did in Silent House, there was oftentimes a poor choice that balanced things out.  The camera work looked excellent when there was little action on the screen, but it got jumbled whenever Sarah would get frightened and moves quickly.  That makes sense in found-footage movies (like The Blair Witch Project), but the cameraman is not a character in this film.  That means that there is no explanation for why the camera gets flustered when she does, which means that the choice to do that was stupid.  It's just sloppy work, stylistically.  I also found the choice in costume odd for Sarah.  She is supposed to be renovating a dirty old house, so what does she wear?  Old jeans and a ratty shirt?  Nah.  She chooses a thin tank top, a thin cardigan, a skirt and tights. 
What would you wear to clean the blood off of floors?
Don't get me wrong --- I appreciate the unnecessary cleavage, but that seems like a poor choice of clothing, especially since she probably wasn't planning on flirting with the other characters, since they are her blood relatives.  And that brings me to the "twist" in the story.  It's very predictable.  Given the creepy nature of the dad and uncle, my initial reaction (about seven minutes in) was SPOILER: "This had better not be about pedophilia."  It was.  And that's icky. 
My sentiments exactly
The explanation for the twist (and some of the hallucinations in the movie) was pretty underwhelming, too.  SPOILER: She's hallucinating because of the mold in the walls, and it somehow creates a split personality for Sarah, one that remembers the sexual abuse she received as a child.  And that personality is who we hear stalking throughout the house, taking vengeance on those that wronged her.  Sarah is scaring the crap out of herself.  I liked that they didn't explicitly say what the catalyst for the events in the movie was, but I still thought the core idea was weak.  It also makes for a fairly crappy explanation for all the other weird stuff happening in the movie, like the toilet on the wall and the little girl outside.  I'm not saying I can't come up with an explanation for them, but I can't think of anything that doesn't sound like film school bullshit.
The light represents her mind, while her cleavage
Even more annoying, the twist necessarily means that the gimmick of the cinematography (experience the movie in real time, with the main character) is negated; if we can't trust what she sees, why bother with that style?  And that makes the movie feel like its cheating the audience.  If you're going to go for realism, you shouldn't use surrealism in your movie.

Silent House definitely has a lot of problems.  Far too many to recommend it.  That's too bad, because there are some pretty impressive ingredients in this film.  Elizabeth Olsen was excellent, the "one take" cinematography trick was interesting, and I thought the filmmakers accurately captured the fear that would come with a home invasion.  Unfortunately, the payoff is so terrible that all that good work is wasted.


  1. I looked up Olsen on IMDb (thanks for the link) to see if I had caught her in anything. While on her page I saw that she is in the upcoming US version of Old Boy. I have always wondered why Hollywood had not remade that flick and now here it is. It looks like it will be a Spike Lee joint as well. He should at least make it interesting. Which is good, as it is doubtful a new version will top the original. Also, it is fun that Olsen will be the female lead, as both that and Silent House have a similarly themed twist in it. Maybe it will her niche as an actress!

    1. Oh, God, what a niche that would be! Maybe she could star in a remake of Chinatown!

      From what I've read, it sounds like they're going to make the US Oldboy significantly different than the original. Apparently, the US version will stick closer to the manga than the loosely adapted original film. Whatever. It's been a while since Spike Lee made anything I wanted to watch, but at least they're smart enough to change things up a bit.