Movie Review: Silent House
This Horror Flick Starts Off Spooky... And the Rest is Silence
By Tom Houseman
March 13, 2012
Silent House's bark is much, much worse than its bite. Horror works using essentially the same method as comedy. Comedy establishes a setup and then delivers a punchline as a way of scoring laughs, while horror establishes a setup and then delivers thrills as a way of getting us to pee our pants. If the setup is ineffective, the film won't be able to clearly define its atmosphere, which will make its attempt to be scary often come off as laughable. But in the same vein, if a horror film is able to effectively create its atmosphere but then never delivers its thrills, it comes off as utterly pointless and a waste of everyone's time. It is the complete failure to execute its third act that is the fatal flaw of Silent House.
Silent House has billed itself as the horror film shown in real time in one continuous shot. Whether it was necessary to shoot the film in one take is irrelevant. What matters is that this decision does not feel like a gimmick, but rather a tool that the directors used as a way of developing the tone and atmosphere of the film (similar to Martin Scorsese's use of 3-D in Hugo). Other directors have used this tactic, including Alfred Hitchcock and Aleksander Sokurov, and in Silent House it is very effective in bringing us into the world of the film without ever being distracting. From the opening moment, it is easy to buy everything that directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau are selling. Our goosebumps are already rising in anticipation of what this story is going to give us.
The lighting, the movement of the camera, the understated but foreboding score; these are not tricks that nobody has thought of before. Silent House is not trying to reinvent the wheel (it is based on a Uruguayan film made only two years ago), but rather to put that wheel on a track that will keep it rolling from start to finish. Unfortunately, when it starts going uphill it loses much of its momentum and has difficulty getting it back. There is not enough action to fill 85 minutes. To compensate, Kentis and Lau make everything take twice as long as it needs to be. They are clearly trying to coast on the tension they developed in the first 20 minutes, but you can only stay tense for so long before something needs to happen.
The structure of the film is what works against it. Sarah, the film's protagonist, is an interesting character, but by having the entire film take place in real time we don't get to know her at all. The only thing that is established regarding her character is that she didn't go to college, which is neither relevant nor interesting. The question that typically drives psychological horror films is “why?” Why can Haley Joel Osment see dead people? Why is that demon haunting Katie and Micah? By telling an 85-minute story we never get a chance to go past “what?” Specifically, “what is going on?” Because we never get to the “why?” before it is answered, the explanation for the events of the film is never justified by anything we have seen. The end of the film fails partly because it is not earned.
Kentis and Lau are clearly talented directors, as the creepiness flows out of the screen and fills the theater, making it impossible to not be nervous the whole time you are watching Silent House. And Elizabeth Olsen continues to prove herself to be a talented young actress, which makes it difficult to believe that she is related to Mary-Kate and Ashley. Olsen's effortless energy and maturity ground Silent House, making it feel more real and thus scarier. Her performance makes Silent House a much more effective film in a way that a scream queen would not have (I cringe to think of what Megan Fox or Lindsey Lohan would have done in the same role). Olsen is clearly just as capable of elevating a one-note horror film as she is a complex indie drama.
And sadly Silent House does feel fairly one-note, which is a shame because that note is played very well for the first half of the film. Had there been some variation put into the song this film is singing it could have been a very effective and powerful horror film. Paranormal Activity has made it acceptable for a horror film to start out incredibly slowly and build its tension piece by piece, but those films work because in the third act everything comes together and explodes. All that Silent House does is let the air out of its balloon, unable to capitalize on all of the tension it has worked so hard to create. Silent House is defined by its strong choices, both structurally and cinematically, but by failing to dedicate the same amount of attention to the story, the result is lifeless and bloated, ultimately wasting its vast potential.