DatesOpens Mar 9
Silent House is a stylish spook-flick anticipated both because of its daring style – a film shot in one long take – and as a vehicle for neo-starlet Elizabeth Olsen, who seduced many a critic last year as a haunted cult victim in Martha Marcy May Marlene. In Silent House (based on a similarly titled 2010 film by Gustavo Hernández, also shot in one take), Olsen plays a similar character, albeit a less nuanced one, which allows her to show us what we already knew: Olsen can produce an involving performance, vulnerable and anxious, stricken without being abrasive. She’s a good breather, and it is her frightened panting that is Silent House’s only real lasting appeal. As a horror flick, the movie shows promise early on, only to squander the tension with a load of “dramatic” mumbo jumbo by the credit roll.
We meet Olsen’s Sarah outside the house, a boarded up Victorian home over looking a glassy lake, dressed in muted blue tones in some northern locale. She is at the house with her father, John (Adam Trese) and uncle, Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens). It takes a few minutes to piece together what exactly is going on. We learn it was a family house, but we’re unsure whose exactly. We wonder if Peter or John are gay, only to find out they are brothers. In the movie’s first creepy moment, Peter shines a light on Sarah and comments about how much she’s grown. It all feeds into how co-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau set up the tension by revealing and concealing elements of the story unrelated to the part of the scenario that is actually designed to scare. There are little dead-end clues — holes in walls, mysterious old friends – that feed the undercurrent of pending dread. Key here is cinematographer Igor Martinovic’s handheld camera, capturing the action in puddle-shallow focus and always staying tight on the character’s faces.
The trick in Silent House (every horror movie has a trick) is that the lights in the house are out (wires chewed through by rats, allegedly) and the windows are boarded up (to keep out squatters). The three characters walk through the black interior with flashlights and lanterns, as if they were trying to scare themselves to death. It’s only a matter of time. When Peter heads to the store, suddenly the house goes quiet, and little noises begin to work on Sarah’s psyche. In the quick flashes of light, we begin to sense that there is something lurking, only we never see it. All we have are Sarah’s gasping, hyperventilating reactions. She goes through the motions, locking herself in the house, barricading herself in a room, and falling prey to that reliable horror film lapse of reason that makes these kinds of films’ stars believe that when you are scared and in a dark place, going into the basement is a good idea.
That the front end of Silent House works at all has everything to do with Olsen and Marinovic. Shot in near pitch blackness at times, we are made to believe the lighter shades of shadow are moving shapes, and we cling to Olsen’s pale-lit face as the only certainty in a world designed to jump out at us. But it is Olsen who really ratchets up the sense of fear, one of the film’s best moments coming when she is crammed in a corner, a creeping intruder just steps away. Olsen bites her hands and then wrenches her face, stretching out a muted gasp. It gives you goose bumps.
For a while, Silent House had me buried, and along with a theater full of people, I began to giggle nervously to relieve the tension. The tension, and the particular sense of dread it exudes, mounts only to suddenly exhale, the air escaping from its conceit as it tires to explain things – who these people are and why we are here. Suddenly everything is brighter. There’s a fire lit in the main room, which allows the directors to block a more conventional showdown between the pursuer and the chased. Part of the disappointment of Silent House’s twisting conclusion is that it introduces literalness the movie’s ghostly psychological neuroses didn’t need. When we are in Silent House, we enjoy the pure anxiety of its effect. Its characters are paper thin, its setup clichéd, but it runs through you like an effective drug. Once that’s gone, it’s hard to remember what all the fuss was about.
The movie’s single take isn’t as effective a tie in as it is in other classic films that employ the technique, like Hitchcock’s Rope or Russian Ark, and we’ve come to expect these kinds of jerky, long hold sequences in horror films. Plus, the camera is so often lost in the dark, cuts could have been made anywhere, and you hardly notice – or care – that it is all one shot. The story’s glaring weaknesses prove far more distracting than the filmmakers’ technique.