Director : Chris Kentis & Laura Lau
Screenplay : Laura Lau (based on the film La casa muda by Gustavo Hernández)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Elizabeth Olsen (Sarah), Adam Trese (John), Eric Sheffer Stevens (Peter), Julia Taylor Ross (Sophia), Adam Barnett (Stalking Man), Haley Murphy (Little Girl)
While the entirety of Silent House takes place in and around a summer lakehouse, the film’s twist is that the title is metaphorical rather than literal. Co-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, who were previously responsible for the low-fi video thriller Open Water (2004), stick close to La casa muda, the 2010 Uruguayan film they are remaking, including its gimmick of making the entire film appear to be a single, unbroken shot. Kentis and Lau display a real knack for how to milk goosey tension and a few genuine scares out of manipulating our perspective and without relying too heavily on musical accompaniment (they judiciously avoid slamming on the instruments when something suddenly appears in the frame). The single-take aesthetic eliminates one of the horror genre’s best (and most abused) tricks—the shock cut—but it creates a relentless vibe that more than makes up for it.
Most of the film’s tension is built and sustained via the intricate and clever camerawork, which deftly utilizes shallow focus to draw (and distract) our attention while fluidly changing gears; at times it floats behind and around characters like an unseen presence, while at other points it temporarily takes over a character’s point of view before jostling about in ragged handheld fashion, temporarily disorienting us (and probably hiding necessary edits; despite the illusion, the film was not shot in a single take like Russian Ark). Lighting—and lack thereof—is crucial, and one of the best sequences finds the film’s terrorized heroine having to use a Polaroid camera to find her way through the darkness; at this point we are firmly within her perspective, seeing only what she sees, and each flash teases us with the possibility of something horrible immediately in front of us.
The protagonist facing those horrors is a college-aged girl named Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen, reminding us that her stirring turn in last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene was no fluke), who is helping her father (Adam Terese) and her uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) clean out and repair their family home. Sarah has not been there in years, and while the reason for this absence is left vague, it gives the house the foreboding chill of a place that is perhaps best left alone. That chill is enhanced by the fact that the house is in a state of disrepair from years of neglect, with mold eating into the walls and all of the windows being covered with plywood after having been broken by vandals. The boarded up windows and the lack of electricity (rats have chewed through the wires) ensures that the interior is in a state of constant gloom, even when the afternoon sun is shining outside. Combine that with a heavy front door that locks from the inside with a key and a lack of cell phone coverage, and the house is a perfectly terrible place of entrapment.
And this is exactly what is becomes when the uncle leaves after an argument with the father in the basement, Sarah begins hearing strange noises upstairs, and she and her father go up there to investigate. The father is knocked out by someone off-screen, leaving Sarah alone in the dark confines of the tomb-like house, which seems to get bigger and more daunting the more she has to move through it, her path lit only by battery-powered fluorescent lamps and the occasional candle. The expansiveness of the house, which eventually includes a Silence of the Lambs-worthy basement and a bathroom that has the same plumbing problems as The Shining’s blood-drenched Overlook Hotel, is both overwhelming and suffocating, and it makes Sarah’s increasingly panicked attempts to escape it seem all the more futile.
To reveal any more risks ruining the film’s third-act revelations, which take the film into entirely new genre territory. Part of the film’s pleasure is trying to figure out exactly what kind of horror movie we’re watching. Is it a haunted house movie? A mad slasher movie? A psychological thriller? Until the final 15 minutes, it could be any one of those or perhaps some odd combination, and while I don’t want to spoil anything, I will say that the eventual explanation for what has been going on is both disappointingly familiar and surprisingly unsettling. The horror genre has always mined the darker recesses of human behavior, and Silent House eventually reveals various repressed memories that tread a fine line between the horrific and exploitative. Had its ending been a little less ambiguous and a little more cathartic, it might have made the film an easier sell, but it also would have undercut its achievement in goosing us with various possibilities and then slamming us with a conclusion that is right up there with the struggling protagonists of Open Water giving in to the ravenous sharks.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Columbia Pictures