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Non-Review Review: Silent House

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Chris Kentis and Laura Lau are both big fans of Edgar Allan Poe. In translating the cult Uruguayan horror for American audiences, the two directors seem to evoke Poe at every opportunity, from the dreary New England setting, with its early sunset and dreary overgrowth, through to symbolism lifted almost directly from Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. However, they juxtapose this classic American horror film vibe with a self-consciously modern filming technique. “Real terror in real time,” the poster boasts. While the decision to film the movie so it would seem like one continuous take is generally technically impressive, but also undermines a lot of the stronger elements of the tale. There is, after all, a reason that directors tend to favour long takes for very particular types of films.

In the silent house, nobody can hear you scream...

Silent House is equally brilliant and infuriating. The movie is edited together so it seems like one long continuous take. Of course, there are obvious “break points” where you can imagine the editor snipped together a number of longer-running sequences, but that doesn’t detract from the fact it’s an impressive accomplishment itself. Even five or six long takes cut together to create the impression of a single one-take is quite a feat.

However, the problem is that long-takes work for certain types of shots, but not for others. So the movie feels like it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul. On the one hand, it makes for great atmosphere when our young protagonist is being stalked through the interior of the house. Th long shots of Elizabeth Olsen silently freaking out as somebody lumbers through the household are remarkably effective, as are some of the conventional “now you see it, now you don’t scares”, where ethereal figures appear for a brief moment only to disappear the next. These moments work.

Pushed past breaking point...

That said, the format has just as many serious problems. There’s an early conversation between our lead and another character where the camera literally will not stop swirling around. Given the movie’s somewhat predictable twist ending, it’s probably intentionally disorienting, but it does come close to nauseating at points. Similarly, some jump scares are ruined by the fact that we don’t get a clear glimpse of what is going on, even for a second. There were several points in the film where the lead would suddenly start screaming and running, and I wasn’t sure why. Had she seen something? Had something touched her? At one point, I couldn’t tell whether or not she had been attacked. The scenes are alternatingly too bright (at some points it seems the intruder has a torch pointing at her face) and too dark (where it’s difficult to see what is important). It is incredibly frustrating to watch.

In fact, the one-take approach evokes a lot of the problems with mocumentary films, but with very few of the benefits. You get the restricted field of vision, along with the constant shaking and lack of focus, but you lose the intimacy of a mocumentary because our lead character isn’t aware of the camera and it doesn’t really let us into her psyche. I do wonder if the film absolutely had to use the sort of music cues one traditionally associates with horror, given the relative novelty of the format and the suggestion in the title. That, of course, suggests the other major problem with the film – the fundamental dichotomy at the heart of the project.

Shining a light on it...

This is a very traditional sort of ghost story, with a decaying house reflecting the moral status of its inhabitants. The wallpaper features spooky faces staring out at us. The electricity is dead because rats chewed through the wires. The landline is dead and no mobiles seem to work in the region. Our cast consists of a family of three: father, daughter and uncle. There are the ever-so-slightly creepy suggestions thrown around. “You’ve grown up so fast,” the uncle tells his niece, in a moment that seems eerily unsettling and slightly perverted. Preparing to sell the old lakeside house, the father has discovered mold at the heard of the structure. As the movie opens, they have discovered that the rot extends to the ground floor, and maybe deeper – to the foundations, as if the house has been “infected” (or “affected”) by the taint of human corruption.

There’s a lot of Edgar Allan Poe here, from the sounds that our lead hears around the house perhaps reflecting her own fears and insecurities like in The Tell-Tale Heart, or the notion that sins of the flesh can corrupt the structures that house them as in The Fall of the House of Usher. There’s another similarity, but it would spoil a twist that is reasonably well set up and followed through on. In fact, I am surprised that the movie doesn’t end with the house collapsing in on itself, an outward reflection of corruption and decay. Even ignoring the influence of that iconic writer on the film, the plotting fells like a conventional old-school horror film – rather than anything new or post-modern.

Spring cleaning can be a pain...

Strange polaroid pictures hint at a dark family secret the father seems keen to protect his daughter from. When confronted with the notion of an intruder in the home, a character in a car doesn’t drive away to call the cops, he dives into the house – with predictable results. The movie’s denouement is too long, too awkward and too filled with exposition, insisting on explaining the obvious to the audience. It feels like a traditional horror film. And I mean that, to be honest, in both a good and a bad way. As with everything else here, it’s wildly inconsistent.

And so, to be honest, the format doesn’t fit the story especially well. The long takes call attention to the style, with some weird choreography required to get us to see what we need to see. It seems strange to use so modern and self-conscious an approach to tell such an old-fashioned story. In a way, the movie seems at war with itself – and perhaps that’s apt, even if it does stop the film from ever being truly satisfying. Instead, it’s merely fascinating and infuriating in equal measure.

Olsen's performance drives the film...

I would note that Elizabeth Olsen is great in the lead role. One of the benefits of the long takes, as discussed above, is the notion that it allows Olsen to really evolve her character in real time, and it gives us a nice continuity of performance. Between Olsen here and Rooney Mara in the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, it seems that these sorts of horror films are the perfect place to spot impressive young talent. I’m not sure Olsen’s performance here is good enough to recommend the film, but it is a wonderful actress doing her best in a fairly thankless role. I think she deserves to be quite proud of her work here.

Silent House is a little disappointing, but only because it is so intriguing. There’s a lot of interesting elements here, but they never seem to play in harmony with one another. There are some great bits, and some terrible bits, and they’re all mixed in together.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

6 Responses

  1. I like the honesty in your review. Is this a film you would choose to see again?

    • I don’t know, Erin, to be honest. I probably wouldn’t seek it out. If my family were looking for a very particular kind of film, I’d recommend it, with the reservations noted above, and I might stay watching it if I stumbled across it one night on digital.

  2. I’m not really one to spend $12.50 to see a movie in the theatre – unless it’s about ghosts, demons…basically non-human type stuff. I’ve been reading reviews everywhere and no one wants to say what’s the cause. So is it about ghosts or what? If not, I’ll just wait to rent it.

    • Okay, since you asked… very minor spoiler alert…

      4
      3
      2
      1

      It’s a mixture of a haunted house and traditional slasher film and something else, which is a major spoiler. The things that menace our lead in the house look like men, wearing manly shoes and causing bodily harm to people while prowling around the house with a flashlight. However, our lead also has visions of a little girl and two men in the house, as well as what seem to be “echoes” of an earlier time before the house was sealed off. These are lesser moments – and they’re not the vast majority of sequences – truth be told, there’s a few early “blink and you miss it” sequences and then some extended… reenactments of what went on in the house a long time ago.

      However, it’s tough to describe without completely ruin the film, which is why I tiptoed around it in the review, and why I suspect others did the same.

  3. It’s definitely a spoiler that makes the film a little less easier to stomach when you are walking out of the theatre.

    • Yep. I thought it was handled a bit… bluntly. Although, to be honest, I would mind seeing it again in a half-a-year, just to see if my views migfht have softened on it.

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