Dear Silent House,
It’s been a while since I felt as conflicted in my opinion of a movie as I have with regards to you. I went into you with low expectations based upon your marketing and your genre, and yet somehow you managed to circumvent those misgivings and hook me. You achieved this in an elemental way; with your story, your narrative technique, and to a great extent because of your actor’s commitment. And yet, in spite of this unexpected victory, you failed to sell me completely, and in your last minutes left me more in love with your ideas, and the idea of you, than with the reality of what you actually accomplished.
How to explain without spoiling your story? Because make no mistake, the mystery at the heart of your tale does add a certain sense of intrigue to your goings-ons. At some point, you seem to abandon horror in its entirety as the questionable motives of the antagonist(s) at the center of your tale of terror become more central to your story. Your protagonist, Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), is helping her father and uncle to clean up their long-abandoned family vacation home to prepare it for sale. When her uncle leaves a series of strange noises begins, and it’s not long before her father has disappeared and the noises grow closer.
From this simple setup you manage to wring an incredible amount of tension and foreboding. The house is as much a character as any human is, filled with peeling wall paper, heavy, creaking doors with loud, metallic locks. The power went out long ago, and so the only illumination comes from candles and lanterns and the cracks in the particle board used to cover the windows. It’s a massive achievement in production design and it creates a nightmarish mood of captivity and perversion of safety.
Your camera work is a great boon to this creation of mood and atmosphere.You are presented as though you were filmed in a single continuous take, the camera unflinching from the events happening around it. This lends your story a kind of immediacy, and grounds the action in a sense of reality and presentness that precludes the audience from being able to take shelter in the idea of the usual horror movie tropes. The killer may seem to appear with the usual slasher film level of supernatural timeliness, but how is that possible if we are seeing everything happen in real time?
This unexpected level of enigmatic uncertainty really shines later on in the film, but is unfortunately torpedoed by a final scene that quite simply doesn’t work. Things intimated and hinted at become spoken aloud, and the actions of certain people become cartoonish when a sense of realism and ambiguity would have been much more effectively frightening. There was space here for subtlety and darker personal tones, but you sacrificed them in the name of cleanly delineating a “winning” and “losing” scenario.
Your master stroke is casting Olsen in the role of Sarah. You are a film the relies on the audience empathizing with Sarah, and Olsen’s expressive face and authentic physicality does wonders for achieving this goal in the way a simple scream queen could not. The transformation of Sarah from normal, vaguely disaffected young woman into a terrified victim barely holding herself together is marvelous. Olsen sells the terror and tenacity of Sarah as she seeks escape from the prison that once was her childhood vacation home.
My recommendation of you is tempered by your missteps in the final moments. I can easily see people being put off or outright angered by the choices you make in these final moments. Yet I feel as though the strength of Olsen’s acting and your innovative means of telling this story in a single take deserve to be seen and discussed as a means of understanding how it could be done better in future films.
You’re a step in an interesting direction, and if that step falters, I feel as though it is only because there is a sense of trepidation that goes along with trying to do something new, and if only your directors (Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, of Open Water) could have acted with more assuredness, you might have been something truly special.
Brian J. Roan