It’s odd that the CinemaScore rating for Silent House, a more than decent gimmicky scare picture that opened last Friday, is an “F” — suggesting that critics like me are more excited by formal inventiveness than most of the film-going public. The gimmick here is that the camera follows the main character, Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), for the entirety of the film, beginning with a striking descent as she sits on a rock staring pensively at the water and finishing … I’m not saying just yet. There are a few discreet edits in what follows but as Sarah helps her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) clean their old summer house (mysteriously without power or light) and prepare it for sale, the takes go on and on, with no time for Olsen — or the audience — to decompress, exhale. We’re essentially marooned with the girl as the creaks and footsteps and thumps begin, staring out into the darkness with her, staggering and swerving with her, deprived of a larger perspective. With its distant, disharmonious, ambient score that seems to be operating on another level of reality, the film can make you, like its protagonist, sick with fear.
I’ve said this before but it has never been truer: If you like looking at an actor’s face, you’ll follow him or her anywhere. I like Olsen’s face. She has her sisters’ oversize waif eyes on a canvas that seems twice as wide and is not just open but convex, inviting our gaze. Yet it’s a face that holds secrets. In Silent House, she plays a young woman of indeterminate age who acts as if she’s still daddy’s little girl. (No mother is mentioned.) Her father and uncle have an unusually antagonistic relationship, but Sarah doesn’t insert herself into their arguments. Something in her holds back, as if to protect herself.
Director Chris Kentis and Laura Lau are fiends for limited perspective, having made their reputations with Open Water, an excruciating piece of work in which we’re stuck with a scuba diving couple left behind by an inattentive boat crew to scream and fight and bob up and down and be slowly devoured by sharks. The movie wasn’t my idea of a good time, but it certainly delivered the creeps. So does Silent House, which is closely based on a 2010 Argentinian* thriller. The staging is resourceful, the scares (even the annoying false ones) well executed. It’s too monotonous — too much of an “exercise in suspense” — to be any kind of classic, but is it worthy of these two comments (among many) on its IMDb page?
“I've seen some real crap movies, but this was worse than Tree of Life and The Talisman combined. I’m not sure who is writing this crap, but whoever it is I’m sure a ten year old could do better. In fact, I think this movie gave me cancer.”
“I have been an avid moviegoer for nearly 30 years and today was the first time in my life that I felt so ripped off I actually asked for my ticket to be refunded. I tried to get past the nauseating shaky camera and blurry actors. The only scenes that were in focus were the never-ending cleavage shots of Elizabeth Olsen. I guess the gratuitous shots of her perky assets were intended to distract the audience from what a steaming pile they were watching.”
Which brings me to the ending. Spoiler. Spoiler spoiler spoiler. (Don’t fucking post in the comments section I’ve spoiled the movie without warning.) As Sarah begins to have visions of a little girl in a tutu presumably being touched by an unseen elder, we know that either a) the house is haunted by its previous unsavory inhabitants or b) that the girl is actually Sarah and that she has repressed a history of sexual abuse.
It’s b, of course, and evidently the notion that we’ve been with Sarah this whole time and in real time and didn’t see her hack the shit out of her dad and uncle is received by the audience as a violation. It was all a hoax. We didn’t see anything.
I think of most thrillers as bags of tricks and admired the ones in Silent House, but the audience sure didn’t and I don’t entirely hold it against them. Would they have been less angry if the house turned out to be full of vengeful ghosties? I think so, but they still wouldn’t have liked the movie much. Maybe the Blair Witch-Paranormal Activity approach has worn out its welcome. Maybe people are tired of the subjective, I-am-a-camera thing born of the sudden and universal access to hi-def. Maybe, too, they’re fed up with subjectivity as the basis for a work of art and hunger for the clarity of omniscience, even in a low-down genre like horror. And maybe they’re sick of being sick.
* This post has been corrected to show that the original movie was from Argentina, not Spain.