Silent House (United States, 2011)

March 07, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Silent House Poster

For about 50 minutes, Silent House represents one of the most intense, unsettling horror movies I have recently viewed. This is Halloween territory, where the tension is so thick as to be almost unbearable. It's the kind of experience hard-core horror junkies seek out like crack. That's the good news. The bad news is that Silent House is 88 minutes long, and the final half hour represents a descent into an anticlimax that ends with a scene as dumb as it is disappointing. The movie in general is by no means subtle, but the sledge-hammer bluntness with which everything is spelled out in the final few minutes is an unfortunate condescension to less attentive audience members.

There's another problem with Silent House that goes beyond its eventual unraveling. The movie has been shot using long takes that, when cleverly edited together using digital chicanery, make it appear as if we're watching one unbroken shot with the narrative is unfolding in real time. It's a high-tech riff on Hitchcock's famous "failed experiment" in Rope. On paper, this sounds like a deliciously inventive idea. In reality, there's a hitch. The entirety of Silent House is filmed using a hand-held camera. A shaky hand-held camera. This is a sure-fire nausea inducer for those sensitive to such things, and a source of annoyance to those less prone to motion sickness. Yes, there are times when this approach enhances the suspense but entire sequences are rendered unintelligible because the camera is shaking too much. Even some of the most infamous "shaky-cam" movies - Breaking the Waves, early '90s Woody Allen, the Bourne sequels - have at least provided moments of stability. Silent House offers no reprieves.

The setup, although admittedly contrived, is clever in establishing a suffocatingly claustrophobic atmosphere. Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), her father, John (Adam Trese), and her uncle, Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), are renovating their old home with the intention of selling it. With the house in a state of construction, there's no electricity or phone service. The windows are boarded and the doors are padlocked. The location is cell phone unfriendly. Late one afternoon, Sarah and John are alone in the house when Sarah hears a noise upstairs. She summons her father and they investigate, although he's sure it's rats. After confirming that everything looks okay, John leaves Sarah in her old room to do some cleaning while he works on something else. Moments later, she hears a loud thud and, when she calls out to her father, there's no answer. She quickly becomes aware that someone else is in the house and, with John no longer able to help her, she is on her own. She is being hunted and, with the windows heavily boarded and the keys to the doors in John's pocket, there's no way out.

The co-directing couple of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (Open Water), remaking Gustavo Hernandez's 2010 Uruguayan feature, get a lot of mileage out of the home invasion scenario. For more than half the running length, we accompany Sarah through narrow corridors into dark rooms and a crumbling basement, always aware there is a presence stalking her, but unsure whether there's one, two, or more intruders, and unaware of their intentions. It's a white-knuckle situation and any seemingly inappropriate giggles from the audience are pressure valves to release tension. As is often the case with horror movies, however, the moment the narrative begins to explain represents the instant when the suspense evaporates. I had a similar reaction to 2011's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, although that movie was not hamstrung by a shaky camera.

Elizabeth Olsen is an inspired choice for the lead. Made before she earned international plaudits for Martha Marcy May Marlene (in fact, Silent House premiered at the same festival as MMMM, 2011 Sundance), this low-budget thriller exploits her expressive face and seeming vulnerability. We readily identify with Sarah's fear and horror, and that's what raises the stakes. She also has a little steel in her backbone, which is welcome. She's a little like Laurie Strode, Halloween's protagonist. She's frightened out of her mind but, when pushed into a corner, she'll do what's necessary.

At its best, Silent House recalls early John Carpenter or Wes Craven. Shot selection maximizes the scare factor, with the camera occasionally catching a glimpse of something that shouldn't be there (like a human shape) as it pans along following Sarah. In one scene, Sarah is trapped in complete darkness with only the flashes of a Polaroid camera to light her way. The bulbs go off in roughly two second increments as she navigates through the darkness, and you know with absolute certainty that one of those flashes is going to reveal something freaky. Little in the way Kentis and Lau have shot the film is unique, but they have borrowed from the best and the movie's synthesis of horror and scare techniques is fascinating and, at least for a majority of the running time, effective.

For those willing to take the bad with the good, Silent House at least offers a slice of classic horror tension. Unfortunately, so much of what could be great about this movie is undercut by the instability of the hand-held camera and the weak ending. The latter is not a deal-breaker but, for some, the former will be. The concept of a single-take, real-time movie is interesting, but the decision to attempt it without stabilizing the images makes stretches of Silent House frustrating to watch. Hard-core horror fans probably won't want to miss this one, but its appeal to a mainstream crowd will likely be limited. It's no coincidence that it has taken 14 months for it to travel the road from the Sundance Film Festival to a multiplex near you.

Silent House (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 2012-03-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1