REVIEW: There's Some Spooky Stuff in Silent House, But It's Mostly Just Arthouse Wigwaggery
Silent House is not just a horror film but a Very Important Piece of Social Commentary, as you’ll see when you get to the movie’s third-act twist. In other words, it’s not asking you to watch a terrified woman’s face for some 90 minutes -- in sort-of real time, no less -- without an allegedly good reason. This is good-for-you, arthouse-style horror. Which doesn’t mean it’s necessarily any good.
The gimmick goes like this: A young woman named Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) is shown rattling around her family’s lake house in a series of long takes designed to give the effect of real time. We see her wandering by the water as if lost in a dream; coming back to the house to greet her father, John (Adam Trese), who’s fixing up the joint with an eye toward selling it; being puzzled when a mysterious dark-haired beauty around her own age, Sophia (played by Julia Taylor Ross), shows up at the front door, reminding her of all the fun times the two had as kids -- Sarah can’t seem to remember a thing. But she does tell Sophia, in an extremely obvious bit of horror-helper dialogue, “The phone lines aren’t set up and our cells don’t work out here” -- information that will later, of course, prove useful for someone to know.
Other stuff happens: For instance, Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), who’s helping his brother and Sarah fix up the house, eyes her with somewhat inappropriate lasciviousness and says, “Look at you -- I can’t get over how grown-up you are.” Then Uncle Peter takes off, and Sarah and her dad are left to wander the inky shadows of the old homestead, their faces illuminated only by the camping lanterns they carry around. Minutes later -- or is it hours? -- Sarah hears a noise upstairs. Dad goes up to investigate, and all seems well until there’s an ominous thunk. Much of the rest of the picture is an extended study of Sarah’s face, which is more often than not twisted into a mask of fear and dread.
It takes forever for things to start happening in Silent House. And when they do, you wish they wouldn’t. The picture is a remake of the Uruguayan film La Casa Muda, directed by Gustavo Hernández, which made a mild splash at Cannes a few years back on the basis of the one-shot gimmick. Chris Kentis -- who also made the 2003 shark-sadism drama Open Water -- and Laura Lau have done the refashioning here, and whatever the movie’s flaws may be, there are stretches that are suitably suspenseful and atmospheric. That’s thanks in part to the picture’s sound design: When we hear footsteps treading perilously close to Sarah, we can tell the wearer is shod in heavy boots with rubbery soles; the sound of a discarded bottle rolling across an uneven wood floor is hollow and mournful; now and then the house groans ever so slightly, as if in denial of the horrors it’s hiding within.
But then there’s the music, courtesy of Nathan Larson, which isn’t really music, but more of a low, migrainey hum. And poor Elizabeth Olsen: Her face is luminous and compelling by itself -- she doesn’t have to do much. But she has too many unbroken minutes to fill in Silent House: One second she’s grimacing, the next she’s practically biting her wrist to keep from screaming, the next she’s back to grimacing again. Please! There’s only so much an actress can do to fill up these endless long takes. In the end, Silent House just comes off as a highly accomplished bit of arthouse wigwaggery -- and a reminder that judicious editing, and not languorous love from the camera, is the actor’s truest friend.