So I went to see Silent House despite all of the apathetic to negative buzz I’ve been hearing about it. Part of that has to do with my fascination with Elizabeth Olsen post Martha Marcy May Marlene, part was due to the gimmick of a movie shot in one take (a la Russian Ark) being conceptually interesting. I say that to justify why I’m putting out a review for a movie that’s been in theaters for over a week already, because I don’t normally do that.
Silent House, as I said, stars Olsen channeling her inner scream queen as a young girl named Sarah who visits a run down house with her father and uncle. They lived there, apparently, many years before–she quickly comes across another young woman who claims to have been a forgotten childhood friend, someone Sarah pretends to remember. Sarah seems flighty and emotionally turbulent, handled with kid gloves by the two men who are with her. They treat her more like you’d treat a kid than a teenager as they explore the dark, moldy disaster of a house. Sarah, for her part, seems to need all the support she can get, prone to wide-eyed, paralyzing moments of emotion when even innocuous things startle her.
Eventually stuff goes bad, because this is a horror film so of course it does. The problem is stuff kind of suddenly goes bad without a lot of explanation. One minute she’s just kind of creeped out by a gross dark house (Who can blame her?) and all of the sudden there are people in the house and she’s being stalked by someone. It’s the kind of arbitrary pacing that really hurts a movie like this, which relies on little more than an actress and atmosphere, and the sudden shift from buildup to reveals of threat is startling only in how fast it happens, not really scary in and of itself.
I suppose this is the point where I should mention again the gimmick, because it explains a lot of these problems. A slasher film often relies upon threats perceived by the audience but not the victims in order to build tension. The slow approach of Jason, the lingering hints of Michael Meyers. Unfortunately, Silent House can’t do that, as the camera never cuts away from Sarah or her perspective. There are benefits to this, in that the camera is in many ways the second victim in the movie, reacting fast and wild to scares, running when Sarah runs, hiding in small spaces with her, huddled in the dark. I have no idea if it’s actually one take–there are definitely places where scenes could be edited together–but the effect is seamless and that’s all that really matters. And the cumulative effect is one of incredible subjectivity, but not a lot of context.
Which is kind of the best and worst part of Silent House as a whole. The scares just aren’t very scary, almost all paced poorly for this type of movie due to the shooting gimmick. There’s one particular sequence of Sarah in the dark using the flash of a Polaroid camera to light up a room that’s actually effective, but even then the payoff isn’t great. But what it does do is put you in the headspace of the very freaked out, increasingly unstable main lead. I can’t think of another horror movie in recent memory that goes so far to sell the thinking of the lead. It’s invested in her, and her motivations, in a way that flies in the face in the endless parade of post-modern horror. This works especially well in the reveal in the last 15 minutes, which isn’t particularly a shock to anyone who has been paying attention, but feels earned by the various hints dropped throughout the movie. It also manages to have a lot of the best character bits in that reveal, so it’s not like it’s a movie that rests entirely on some sort of twist.
Silent House isn’t a great movie, I’m not even sure it’s a good movie, but it’s an interesting horror movie and that’s honestly rare enough to make me feel a certain amount of affection for it. I don’t normally offer the kind of see it/rent it/skip it choices in a review, because that sort of thing is less interesting to me, but if you ever wanted a decent but unexceptional horror movie to rent on a lazy Saturday night, Silent House is certainly far from the worst choice you could make.