Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
March 2012

Silent House

Fixer-upper

'Silent House' reveals unexpected depths, but its filmmaking fails to pull the trick off

Silent House
Open Road Films
Director: Chris Kentis and Laura Lau
Screenplay: Laura Lau, based on the film by Gustavo Hernandez
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, Eric Sheffer Stevens and Julia Taylor Ross
Rated R / 1 hour, 25 minutes
(out of four)

Silent House is what it is, until it turns out that it's not.

At first it's rather easily identifiable as your typical damsel-in-distress flick, which needless to say takes place in a nearly empty house somewhere out in the boonies. We gather that the house is occupied either by an intruder or a supernatural presence of some kind. It goes without saying there is no electricity or cell-phone reception.

But the film takes advantage of our familiarity with the template, ushering in strange anachronisms until finally we realize, this isn't really a haunted-house movie at all.

Let's back up a bit. Our main character - and, crucially, our eyes and ears for the duration of the film - is Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman of about 20 or so. She's withdrawn and emotionally detached, and fittingly spends most of the movie completely by herself within the frame. She's spending the weekend at her family's old lake house, along with her dad (Adam Trese) and uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens). It's been years since she spent any time there, but now that the family's selling the place, she's along to help fix it up and get it ready for the market.

One early hint that something is awry comes during an awkward encounter between Sarah and an old childhood friend, Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross). Sophia excitedly stops by and wraps her arms around Sarah, lamenting how long it's been since the two have seen each other. She says they should catch up sometime, laugh about old times, get to know each other again. Sarah hesitantly accepts but in fact only seems to remember Sophia vaguely, if at all.

The scene resets our expectations a bit - as well as illuminating our perception about Sarah, confirming her physical and mental unsteadiness - but the rhythms of formula soon take hold again. The sun sets, Sarah begins to hear strange noises upstairs, the doors seem to be locked from the outside, she can't get out, etc, etc.

Most of the publicity for Silent House has been about its supposed "one-shot" technique. Indeed, the film uses invisible cuts to present what looks like a single uninterrupted take. (In that regard, it's more Rope than Russian Ark.) Apparently this was the same technique employed by the Uruguayan film on which this one is based. I haven't seen the original, but I'd be curious to see it in comparison with this remake.

It's easy to write the real-time approach off as a gimmick, but the way it expresses the fluid sense of perception and reality is crucial to the way the film is intended to operate. What's most interesting about Silent House is what turns out to really be going on - let's just say this is not a movie about a girl being terrorized by an intruder - and the visual technique plays directly into that.

But there's always a but, isn't there? And in this case, the but is this: Directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (who previously helmed Open Water) cannot be counted on to execute a simple reveal shot. I'm sorry, but that should be the prerequisite for being allowed to direct any horror or suspense film. It's so fundamental to the way those genres work, any moment punctuated by a scare or a reveal of any kind is completely ruined if you don't have a director who can pull it off. That inability proves to be Silent House's undoing.

There are several shots clearly intended to have dramatic impact, but it's so unclear where the camera is directing us, where our eyes are meant to be focused, or what it is we're even looking at, that they leave no imprint whatsoever. That, or Kentis and Lau expect us to jump just because of the loud musical cue that accompanies the confused reveal. Sorry, but I'm not biting.

The film also seems unsure exactly how to use at least one of its characters, which brings down a key sequence late in the film. But that's a minor complaint compared to the more serious directorial flaws.

Silent House premiered at last year's Sundance Film Festival. It, along with Martha Marcy May Marlene, was Olsen's coming-out party. She certainly proves her chops here as well, giving more than just your standard shrieking/crying/scared-girl performance. There's a rare naturalism in her expressions, reactions and body language, and those abilities alone raise the level of scene after scene.

It's been said (and is largely true) that every up-and-coming female star has to do this movie - the low-budget horror flick. Like a rite of passage. What's unfortunate is that the material is there for Olsen to have actually done something substantial with this, her obligatory haunted-house movie. If only the film itself had done her justice.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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