Movie Review: Silent House (2011)
Fear in real time. That’s the most tantalizing hook the horror genre has offered since “The Blair Witch Project” opened the “found footage” floodgates more than a dozen years ago. That genre reinvention eventually led to the 2007 Spanish horror masterpiece “[Rec],” my pick for the scariest movie of the past decade. That movie was remade (faithfully, though somewhat pointlessly) as “Quarantine” in 2008. Now, history is sort of repeating itself again with Silent House, a still fresh remake of a 2010 Uruguayan fright flick that got the ball rolling on this new subgenre of horror cinema. Remakes are everywhere nowadays, but it’s tough to complain about this particular update when it so intensely and impressively highlights a promising new path for horror cinema to explore.
The gimmick is wonderfully ambitious and genre appropriate. Like the original (“La Casa Muda,” translated as The Silent House), the new Silent House (be gone with you, The!) is shot in what appears to be one long, unbroken take. Also as in the original, there are a few points where cheating could occur (moments of complete darkness, for example), a matter made more mysterious by the credits. The remake doesn’t feature an editing credit, although the original does (it’s Gustavo Hernández, who also directed that movie). Despite this, the mystery is short lived, since it turns out the remake is actually a compilation of ten-minute segments that smartly mask their editing scars. But even then, regardless of how exactly the gimmick’s effect is achieved, the experience remains wholly engaging and excitingly unique.
Single-shot pictures have been done before, but applying this approach to the horror genre is a relatively new idea and it proves a fascinating fit. So many fright flicks rely on sharp edits to fabricate a scare, cutting to the monster when least expecting it or registering a reveal with a visual shift that is as loud as the shrieking sound that accompanies it. Removing the comfort of a clean cut from the equation forces directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau to get creative with their attempts to terrify us. The swirling, shaking, bumping, and altogether frantic camera work still leaves plenty of room for jump scares, but now they’re disorienting and engaging in a way that feels eerily organic.
The story of Silent House is a simple setup that suits the gimmick. Pretty protagonist Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) has joined her dad John (Adam Trese) and Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) on a trip to the family’s lakeside house. The place needs a lot of cleaning up before it can be sold, so Sarah is just there to help out. It’s a seemingly innocent task, a mere matter of packing stuff in boxes, but things take a nasty turn when Peter leaves, Sarah starts hearing noises, and John vanishes during some sort of implied off-screen assault. Only a loud thud alerts Sarah and lets us know that the fear is about to set in.
Then it’s basically just Sarah running around the house as the camera traces her every move and pulls us along for the hair-raising ride. Various scenes are lifted from the original movie and then reimagined to keep Sarah’s journey from growing monotonous, but while this Silent House certainly hits many of the same beats as its predecessor, it also makes enough changes and creates enough new situations and spaces to step out from underneath the shadow of the original and become a smart, worthy, welcome remake.
Scenes that take us into the bowels of the house or lock us in a vehicle with Sarah are especially terrifying and help the remake stand on its own. Even having just recently viewed the original, I found myself the victim of several well-timed scares that I couldn’t predict. Kentis, Lau, and cinematographer Igor Martinovic certainly know how to shoot some extremely unnerving sequences. Their shot composition is impeccable. They collectively push Sarah’s visage into the corner of the frame and cover her surroundings in darkness or stay so close to her that we’re practically watching through the lens of a first person perspective. When the frights arrive, the claustrophobic composition works its creepy magic, trapping us inside the same space as Sarah and making us feel the personal invasion of terror.
Of course, all of these effectively executed scares require our emotional attachment to Sarah in order to really connect. And so Olsen nails it, delivering a phenomenal performance that communicates the horror of her situation with every glimpse of her tear-filled face and every echo of the shrill screams that escape her lips. Her Sarah is entirely believable and she manages to keep her performance in constantly interesting territory, no small feat when considering the seeming repetitiveness of Sarah’s situation and reactions. The camera is almost always trained on her and watching Olsen navigate this nightmare remains an engaging experience throughout. It’s unfortunate that Olsen’s co-stars are such silly blocks of wood, though. Trese and Stevens are interchangeably dull and Julia Taylor Ross can’t do much with an awkwardly inserted role.
The scares in Silent House eventually take a backseat during the remake’s clumsy third act, a bland butchering of the original’s acceptable twist. Kentis and Lau definitely do not save the best for last here and their sloppy approach to the conclusion rather frustratingly contradicts the intelligence and imagination of everything they accomplished in the movie’s other two acts. Still, as creaky a note as the film ends on, the solid strength of the real time scares and the carefully complex nuances of Olsen’s performance make this a fright flick worthy of our fear. Kentis and Lau previously unveiled their ability to disturb movie audiences with their low-budget 2003 shark thriller “Open Water” (its gimmick: they used real sharks) and they once again prove that they are masters of littering the frame with craftily placed shapes and objects that have us questioning our eyes, unsure of what we’ve seen (or not seen). Their latest effort makes a little too much noise on the floorboards at the end, but that doesn’t stop it from being frighteningly fun overall. This Silent House invites us in, only to promptly freak us out.