What’s so scary about a silent house, you may ask? That was the question posed to me by a friend prior to the screening of the new horror/thriller called... you guessed it... "Silent House." A remake of the Uruguayan film "La Casa Muda" which was based on a true story, "Silent House" is a creatively challenging film that succeeds on many levels, and falters on a just a few.
As directed by the "Open Water" duo of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, the film’s gimmick is that it is shot in real time in one continuous take. Per the production notes, this "continuous" take is not so much one 88-minute shot, but a series of long takes strung together. Regardless, it’s an impressive feat with 20-minute chunks of the story being choreographed so precisely that you sit back in amazement.
The storyline is simple: Sarah is a young woman (my guess is early 20s although we are never given her specific age) who is helping her father John (Adam Trese) and Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) pack up their old vacation home on a lake in an isolated area of upstate New York. The house has been the victim of vandals and squatters so every window and door has been boarded up with only the front door allowing access in or out.
This front door also requires a key be used to open it from the inside and is frequently locked by Sarah after she enters. Rats have chewed the electrical wiring apart so there is no electricity and with the windows covered by plywood, the interior of the house is pitch-black even when it’s daylight outside. The house is expansive with a basement of nooks and hallways and three stories of rooms completing the rest of the home.
The movie begins with Sarah sitting by the lake trying to get rid of a headache. The camera follows her back to the house where her father has returned from running errands. The two enter, soon followed by Uncle Peter. The dynamic between the two men is jovial, but oddly strained and there is a moment early on where something starts to happen to Sarah. We’re not quite sure what as her eyes simply grow wider and a throbbing note on the film’s soundtrack signals something is amiss.
Uncle Peter eventually takes off and Sarah and her dad are left alone. He tells her to finish packing up and within minutes, there is an odd thump outside her room. Upon investigation, she discovers John is missing. Sarah discovers that she is not alone in the house and the only door she can get out of is locked - and the key is missing. What follows is 88-minutes of continuous suspense and mystery with a tour de force performance by Olsen.
After making her mark with an impressive debut in "Martha Marcy May Marlene," Olsen proves she is no one-hit wonder. While much of her performance is without dialogue, the terror, fear, guilt, shame, and anger is so clear and wrenching that she should be remembered at Oscar time. While the supporting cast doesn’t fare as well in this department, Olsen is riveting and absolutely believable.
The "one continuous take" gimmick actually works here, providing the filmmakers with a challenge in how to make the requisite scares in a horror film to work in ways not normally composed. It’s sort of a variation on the "found footage" genre. While it doesn’t have the same dizzying style, it allows the audience a fresh perspective on situations we’ve seen in a hundred other horror films before it.
The film has an indie/foreign quality to it that plays to its strengths, keeping American audiences off balance, as they might not be used to seeing this genre played out in a more artistic way. Story-wise it reminded me of the French thriller "Them [Ils]" where innocuous people are threatened by unseen outside forces. This is a suspense film that will truly turn you into a stress ball.
That said, the biggest misstep here is the ending - whether it’s a total misstep could be debated. Nothing will be revealed here, but the finale is part predictable, but also unsatisfying. It leaves more questions than answers and it is partly a worn-out twist. After reading the production notes and discussing it with the people with whom I saw it, it seems there is a lot more going on here than first assumed.
The art direction by Katya Debear is highly detailed and because of the film’s one-take gimmick, things have to be changed and altered in real time, and as the story piles on some twists, this challenge might not have worked. Looking back, there seem to be clues placed here and there that give insight into not only Sarah’s psyche, but also into the truths about what’s happening.
The final moments of the film will undoubtedly cause a debate in that "did I just see what I saw, or am I confused" way. References to things like toxic mold and the "is it real" goings-on in the final act just add fuel to the debate. While at first I found this irritating, looking back it begins to be a puzzle I want to figure out. In a way, I feel like I should see it again to put all the pieces together. And in a genre where subtlety is not the filmmaker’s first priority, here it’s a welcome twist on the familiar. Mix that with a stunner of a performance by Olsen and you have the recipe for something pretty amazing; flawed, but amazing.
Here’s a link to my web review from the web series: Just Seen It @ www.justseenit.com.
Sarah :: Elizabeth Olsen
John :: Adam Trese
Peter :: Eric Stevens
Sophia :: Julia Ross
Director, Chris Kentis; Producer, Laura Lau; Producer, Agnes Mentre; Executive Producer, Adeline Tessaur; Executive Producer, Eva Diederix; Executive Producer, George Paaswell; Executive Producer, Lynette Howell; Cinematographer, Igor Martinovic; Original Music, Nathan Larson; Production Design, Roshelle Berliner; Art Director, Katya Debear; Set Decoration, Robert Covelman; Costume Designer, Lynn Falconer; Casting, Kerry Barden; Casting, Paul Schnee.