Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Julia Taylor Ross
(Open Road Films)
US theatrical: 9 Mar 2012 (General release)
UK theatrical: 4 May 2012 (General release)
In my experience, horror movie audiences are among both the most open and yet also unforgiving. They’re willing to attend almost any movie the genre in search of a good scare, with an instinctive understanding of the ways that a low-rent, star-free experiment can be just as rewarding as a slicker counterpart, if not more. And yet, many public screenings of horror movies end with in a chorus of boos.
Sometimes these jeers are deserved (The Devil Inside certainly earned viewers’ ire), but sometimes these reactions display an almost willful ignorance of how the genre actually works. By design, horror movies tend to leave their narrative doors open, either for more scares in your head, or for direct sequels down the road. A few end with ludicrous twists.
Granted, this leaves a sad lack of options for horror filmmakers. Many of them, trying to leave their options open, paint themselves into corners instead. For example, the new horror film Silent House has such a starkly simple premise—the menacing of a young woman at her old family house, rendered in a single continuous camera take—that its narrative options are limited: the girl gets killed, she gets away, or a plot twist arrives unexpectedly from left field.
Before Silent House reaches those crossroads, it’s an effective piece of gimmickry. Remade from a 2010 Uruguayan film that was written, directed, and edited by Gustavo Hernández, the American Silent House was almost certainly not shot in a single take; there are a few key points where invisible edits could have been fudged over. But its simulation is more or less seamless, and does the job of sparing its viewers the relief of a cut.
This uncut shot never strays far from Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), following her as she arrives home to help her father (Adam Trese) and Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) clean up the place for sale. After establishing the house’s horror bona fides—it’s old, it creaks, and it’s boarded up, letting in little light—the movie teases Sarah with strange noises. She seems almost to sense that she’s in a horror film, and Olsen, no stranger to performing terror after Martha Marcy May Marlene, plays her as smart, if unprepared for the genre wringer.
Sarah eventually finds herself trapped in the house, hearing and glimpsing strange figures who go about their business with an eerie lack of hurry. Co-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, so adept at capturing something like genuine fear in Open Water, here make savvy use of shallow focus, racking between foreground and background to keep viewers off balance and unaware of what exactly lurks outside their field of vision.
As Silent House adopts some of the language of recent found-footage horror movies, with handheld camerawork and limited point of view, its one-take effect seems almost old fashioned. Indeed, Lau and Kentis build the film’s scariness better than many horror movie makers, generating suspense in individual scenes of running and hiding, as well as some meta-suspense over whether the movie will turn to be a home-invasion shocker, a ghost story or something else entirely. But tension alone can’t sustain a movie, even a horror movie. Some manner of conclusion must be reached.
Silent House does find an ending, though not after dropping some clues (first cryptic, then increasingly obvious) and overstaying its welcome with 10 minutes too many of Sarah sneaking around the house, hearing scary noises, and hiding under things. I’m not sure if audiences will boo the final minutes of Silent House, or if they achieve that magical, apparently elusive surprise craved by horror fans. To discuss those moments further would spoil the movie’s drawn-out creepiness.
I can say, though, that Silent House spoils some of that creepiness, placing a shaky narrative gimmick on top of its relatively sound filmmaking trick. It doesn’t come to a ridiculous, insulting conclusion (it plays about as fair as it can, given the circumstances) as much as it fizzles out after a long build-up. Kentis and Lau deserve credit for not simply repeating the doominess of Open Water, and approaching the genre from a different angle. For a good long while, Silent House is a superior scare machine. And then it fails to go further.