horror movies. From the countless J-Horror remakes, like The Ring, through to the remake of Spanish zombie horror RECas the decidedly average Quarantine, Hollywood likes to essentially make the same films with American accents. So hearing that Silent House is a remake of Uruguayan chiller La Casa Muda (The Silent House), should probably tell you all you need to know about the film. Except Silent House stars one of Hollywood’s most ethereal, up-and-coming young actresses in the shapely form of Elizabeth Olsen.
During the summer Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) heads to her family’s lakeside house to help her father and uncle clear it out. With squatters constantly breaking into the house, it has been boarded up and mould has taken hold. The house has no power, the phone is dead and there’s no mobile signal (as is want with any good horror), and Sarah begins to hear noises from within. When her father is attacked by an unseen assailant Sarah’s nightmare is just beginning. Running from room to room she soon learns that something horrific has happened in the family retreat and one way or another it is going to reconcile itself tonight.
The unique selling point of the original film, at least in theory, is that it was all shot in one continuous shot. No cuts, just Sarah being followed around the house as the horror unfolds. Silent House goes for the same approach, shooting in long takes before carefully cutting, almost unnoticed, to a new moment. For the first half hour this device certainly raises the tension, the camera rarely far from Olsen’s face, we experience the terror through her silent screams rather than actually seeing anything specific. Instead, like Spielberg’s Jaws, the evil lurking in the shadows is implied and never seen. The effect is unsettling; forcing you to constantly inspect the edges of the frame for fear that something is just waiting to creep its way into shot. But it grows old and by the half way point you begin to realise much of this technique is designed to keep you in the dark of the story rather than effectively rattle you. It’s somewhere between The Blair Witch Project and a Jason Bourne shaky-camera experience meaning you see little but feel increasingly nauseous.
What becomes apparent by watching Silent House is directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau are not only trying to rack up the scares but, more importantly, hide the fact there is almost no plot. The story is essentially Sarah running from room to room, up stairs, downs stairs before escaping, only to be sucked back into the house again. And that’s it. Until the final ten minutes or so where, in a desperate attempt to make sense of it all, they shoehorn in a plot that makes little to no sense involving characters we’ve seen so fleetingly we fail to care. From an atmospheric point of view Kentis and Lau should be commended, but it’s all style and no substance.
If there is a reason to therefore endure this fairly arduous viewing experience it is Olsen. Having blown all expectations with last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, Olsen has proven to be more than just the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley. While Silent House never demands her to plummet the depths of Martha Marcy’s stunningly disturbed and fractured character Olsen nonetheless is a magnet to the eyes. It helps of course that she is rarely anywhere other than centre frame. For many leading characters being in every scene is to be expected but to be in every shot is a tough ask and Olsen pulls it off with easy. What is so refreshing about her performance is that she refuses to conform to the scream queen sensibility. Rather than bellow her sizable lungs out, Olsen spends much of the time in silent terror, biting her fist to stifle her screams. The effect is endlessly more haunting than your run of the mill yell-fest.
Horror fans will be mildly entertained for three quarters of Silent House’s running time, others might be briefly engaged by its unsettling atmospherics but by the time the credits roll you’ll feel short changed. Suffice to say that outside of Olsen’s performance this Silent House could do with a bit of renovating.