There was a curious sense of recognition that kept nagging at me as I watched Silent House. It wasn’t that I’d seen La Casa Muda, the Uruguayan film that it was based on, but rather that I felt like I’d observed some of its conventions before. It then hit me that the film was directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, who also directed 2003’s Open Water, a film that I found to be extremely inconsistent — at times gripping and fascinating, at times brutally dull. There’s an odd tonal similarity with Silent House — minus, unfortunately, the aspects that made Open Water watchable.
As mentioned, Silent House is a remake, and it sticks basically to the story of its predecessor. It’s location has been transported to an anonymous lakeside town somewhere in the U.S., and its characters are American, but it’s essentially the same simple story — a young woman named Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) is helping her father John (Adam Trese) and her uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) renovate their long-abandoned family home. The house, an old, creaky spectral shell of a building filled with the detritus of their past, is a character in and of itself, full of darkness and sound, and it’s shortly after the film starts that things start to go wrong. Sarah has a strange meeting with a childhood friend that she doesn’t remember, then hears a terrifying noise, and suddenly her father is nowhere to be found. Chased by an ominous phantom figure, she lurches about the house trying to find him as noises and sights come bursting forth to ratchet up her anxiety and terror. Eventually she finds him, severely injured, and comes to the realization that there’s someone or something stalking her in the house, a house that has boarded up windows that she can’t get open and locked doors for which she has no key.
It’s a solid, if unoriginal concept, and it’s accentuated by the film’s underlying gimmick. Like La Casa Muda, the film takes place in real time and is shot in a single, 88-minute take with no cuts or editing. Well, that’s what the directors purport, though there’s no veracity to that claim. There were several scenes filmed in total darkness (there’s no electricity in the house), and a couple of moments of blurring action wherein a cut could easily have been seamlessly edited in. And of course, the most damning elements are the reports that several scenes were re-shot. Regardless, the story is indeed told in real time, and it’s a blur of close-shot, jumpily filmed chaos that’s at times barely visible among all its self-created tumult.
Concepts aside, the problems with Silent House are legion. It’s the longest 88 minutes I’ve experienced in quite some time, and it faces the same criticisms that I had of the original. One of its largest issues is that for much of that 88 minutes, simply nothing is happening. It lacks some of the investigative momentum that compelled the original, and instead Sarah is just stumbling from room to room, purposeless and terrified. It’s not helped by Olsen’s hideously overwrought, almost laughable performance, one so lacking in nuance or subtlety that it’s hard to believe this is the woman who stunned audiences in Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene. Her performance consists of sobbing, gasping, whining, screaming, and then gasping some more, followed by a bit more sobbing. This becomes an even more obvious detriment when one considers that Olsen is quite literally in every frame of the film, and as such the picture is destined to live or die on her depiction, one that fails rather miserably.
Olsen’s performance is not helped by the directors’ determination to have her hit every single horror cliche, as if they were ticking items off a checklist. She runs when she should stay still, screams when she should be quiet, trips when she looks behind her, and despite being in a house full of tools and equipment, seems almost dedicated to dropping her flashlight, and only once actually thinks to look for a weapon — in the final 10 minutes, of course. To make matters worse, despite the murky darkness and flitting light, the film never manages to generate any real sense of palpable tension or atmosphere, relying on a couple of jump scares to abruptly yank the viewer back into the experience whenever their attentions started to wander.
And wander my attention did, because much of Silent House is dreadfully dull. It all seems rather pointless for much of the film, until the film’s sudden and bizarre climax, one that was so clumsily thrust upon us that it wasn’t a surprise as much as it felt like an addition so shocking and utterly weird that it almost felt tacked-on. I suppose I won’t spoil it, but I will say that the conclusion of La Casa Muda handled that twist far more deftly and subtly. In Silent House, it suddenly lurches from claustrophobic little thriller to wild-eyed Hollywood horror cliche, without warning or necessity. It’s not that the reveal and its subsequent conclusion don’t make sense, it’s that it chooses to hammer you about the head and face with its point — even sillier given the fact that I suspect that much of the audience saw it coming. As a result, the film ends up a loud, bombastic, blunt-instrument descendant of the original, rather than an inspired remake that adds something fresh to the story.
As an aside I didn’t think I’d ever have to mention in a review, the other bizarre element is Sarah’s near constant display of copious cleavage (so much so that within minutes of the film’s opening, Mrs. TK leaned over and whispered, “why is she working on the house without a bra?”). Don’t get me wrong — Olsen is quite lovely, and her cleavage equally so. But it was so blatant and omnipresent that it actually served as a distraction, and so obviously deliberate that it actually diminishes the film even further, as if by adding bloodied cheesecake to the mix we’d somehow be more find the character more appealing. Instead, it was tacky and unpleasant and rather disappointing for a film that clearly wants to be a smarter entry into the genre. But then, that was the problem in the first place — amidst all the running and screaming and gasping and cleavage, there’s little about Silent House to distinguish itself.