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Silent House Loses Us in the End
Directors: Chris Kentis and Laura Lau
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Julia Taylor Ross, Haley Murphy
“Is that really what you're leaving me with?”
That is what I wanted to shout at Silent House once the end credits started to roll. For the first hour or so, the movie succeeds in being one of the scariest and most engaging psychological thrillers of recent memory. Yet once the movie finally reaches its destination point, you can't help but wonder whether the journey, no matter how compelling it was, was worth taking in the first place. It's not that the film's secrets are stupid, it's just that what happens after they're revealed feels dishonest and anticlimactic. Given what the film accomplishes during the first hour, there is really no excuse for it to conclude on such an absurd and incompetent note.
The movie is a remake of a Uruguayan horror film, which I have not seen. Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, stars as Sarah, a college aged girl who is helping her father John (Adam Trese) and Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) renovate her old family home before they put it up for sale on the market. When her Uncle Peter is sent to town on an errand, strange things begin to happen. In one unusually disturbing scene, Sarah runs into a young woman named Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross), who claims to be an old friend of Sarah's, even though Sarah doesn't remember her. Sarah spots a couple of old Polaroid pictures around the house that no one, for some reason, wants her to see. Later on, she hears a noise coming from upstairs, and when her father goes to investigate, he disappears for a time before turning up again with a serious head injury.
There turns out to be someone else in the house with John and Sarah. Whether said stranger is a ghost or a villain of flesh and blood is something I will leave for you to discover.
Directed by husband and wife team Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (with the screenplay penned by Lau), Silent House is, for the most part, a pretty terrific film. Kentis and Lau have the movie unfold in what appears to be one unbroken shot (I say appears because there is one sequence in which the screen goes completely dark, giving the filmmakers the opportunity to sneak in an edit), and while the camera shakes every once and a while, they do manage to create a elegant and beautiful looking film. The film's opening high angle shot, which shows Sarah sitting alone on the rocks near a lake that's walking distance from the house, is particularly spell-binding, and the few moments where the camera pans across a wall when there's a noise coming from the other side of it are actually quite chilling.
Which brings us to the main question: Is the movie scary? At times, very much so, and the film's single take approach helps to exacerbate the tension. There are no edits to break the terror, and thus, not a second we have to try and catch our breath. And unlike many recent horror films, which seem to stress gore and senseless violence over atmosphere and tension, Silent House's bag of scares are refreshingly old school. Most of the movie takes place in the house, and because the windows are all boarded up, the only source of light comes from the many lanterns the characters are forced to carry around. This means that the movie relies a lot on shadows and ominous silhouettes lurking in the background, and it's all exceptionally effective. Special mention must also be made of Nathon Larson's sparse musical score, which manages to heighten the suspense without ever drawing attention to itself.
But the main attraction of the film, the real reason to see it (if that is what you decide to do), is Elizabeth Olsen. Prior to this film, I have actually never seen this young woman act before. I heard nothing but great things about her performance in last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene, but I never was able to get around to actually seeing the film for myself (something that's gonna have to change very soon). There is really no other way to put it: Elizabeth Olsen is a revelation. There may not be a whole lot the screenplay tells us about her character, but what the screenplay lacks in character development she makes up for in the simplest of gestures. There is not a second where the camera turns away from her, and not a second when the audience would ever wish it to. Her performance is so focused and so vigorous that it is, I kid you not, award worthy. Everyone else plays their parts well enough, but it is Olsen who is the constant beacon of light even when the film goes wrong.
And it does go wrong. Boy, does it ever. There is a strong urge to reveal to you what happens during the final minutes of the film, just so you won't be as shocked and enraged as I was by the dishonest places the movie chooses to go to. The twist, as much of an old hat as it is, could have worked had the filmmakers brought something new to the table, but they don't. Certain elements feel painfully contrived when looked upon in retrospect (this is especially true of the Sophia character), and the characters develop an annoying tendency to completely change their personality when it serves the screenplay (Olsen, although she is always a joy to watch, changes her personality twice in the span of 30 seconds). It all feels manipulative, and the sense of pathos we're suppose to be left with feels unearned and more than a little tasteless.
And then, the movie just ends! I'm not sure just what the heck the filmmakers where hoping to communicate with the closing shot, but it felt as though there was more to the movie that they just didn't want you to see. There seems to be a deeper purpose to the film, but the film cuts to black before that purpose is known. It's almost as though Kentis and Lau were committed to the story at first, but then grew tired of it and were just eager to see it end.
It took a long while to figure out how I was going to grade this movie. There are so many things that the movie does right, that I was willing to forgive what it does wrong. But the more I looked back on the film, the more enraged I was by its unremittingly lame ending. Silent House will probably work best as a rental when it finally hits DVD, but it feels too insincere and contrived to justify a trip to the theaters.
Final Grade: ** 1/2 (out of ****)