Saturday, March 10, 2012

Empty Houses

At about the halfway point of Silent House (2012, directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau), I turned to my companion and said something to the effect of, "What the hell are they going back in there for?" As a general rule of thumb, if I say anything at all while a film is unspooling before me, that's usually a bad sign. I sit through most movies, even bad ones, as silent as the grave. In this case, I wasn't having a bad time at all, so when this happened here, it was kind of a surprise. I mean, they were doing so well up to that point. I was digging it. And then the wheels really flew off. It's hard enough to stay in the moment with a horror movie. Don't give the audience an excuse to check out, guys, because they may not check back in even if, as in Silent House, the movie manages to cover its tracks in the end.

Silent House is kind of a gimmick movie, filmed, as it is, in a single long take. I'm sure there are some subtle pieces of digital editing here and there, along with black screens that give the directors the chance to give themselves some coverage, but the illusion is what counts and this film give a convincing illusion that there are no cuts. Regardless, it unfolds in real time. Theoretically, this should intensify the experience of the movie while subtracting a certain level of artifice. Given that this is an old dark house movie, it's not a bad tactic. Horror movies rise and fall on the willing suspension of disbelief and anything that aids that process is all to the good. For the first forty minutes of the movie, the whole thing works as advertised. Our heroine, Sarah, follows her uncle and her father into their vacation home where all three of them have been rehabbing the property for sale. Sarah begins to hear stirrings elsewhere in the house, stirrings her father and uncle don't hear. Her uncle heads off into town. Sarah begins poking around and her father vanishes. The house doesn't have electricity, so she's on her own in the dark. She eventually finds her father, who has been beaten over the head. He's still alive, but unconscious. Persons unseen torment her, and thwart her attempts to get out of the house. When she finally gets out, she happens across her uncle, and they return to the house. Let me reiterate. They return to the house. It doesn't occur to them to drive down the road to pick up cel phone reception or drive to the police station. They head back into the house, where Sarah knows there are unseen malefactors. Stupid.

But let's back up a bit. There are three items in this part of the movie that hint at something going on under the surface. The first is a visit from their neighbor, Sophia, who claims to have played with Sarah as a child, but who Sarah doesn't remember. The second is the mysterious Polaroids scattered around the house that the menfolk keep trying to keep from Sarah. The third is the mysterious little girl Sarah sees as she's fleeing the house. It's a fleeting vision, but once she sees it, the movie turns into a mindfuck rather than an old dark house movie. Rather than unseen external enemies, the real horror here is a classic case of the "return of the repressed." I've probably given away too much of the movie at this point, but to hell with it.

As a technical exercise, I do kind of admire the film. I'd admire it more if Russian Ark didn't exist or if this had been done on film rather than on the limitless canvas of digital. I think the single-take horror movie has possibilities, given that it's a genre that depends more than most on its point of view for its effects. And, to give it its full due, Elizabeth Olsen is superb in the lead. Martha Marcy May Marlene wasn't a fluke, and as a character study, Silent House acts as a kind of lowbrow companion piece to that film. I have no qualms with the actual filmmaking itself. Directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau seem to thrive within the limitations they set for themselves (their last film was the equally narrow Open Water).

But, man, I hate the screenplay. I hate the way it cheats to maneuver the audience, because it makes the effort expended on its gimmick completely moot. We see Elizabeth Olsen in almost every foot of film and yet the film constructs situations where she CAN'T be on screen, because she's acting in areas of the house that are very much off screen. This commits the same kind of self-immolation as the end of High Tension, which has a similarly unreliable point of view, and it feels like as much of a sham.

Nota bene: This is a remake of a Uraguayan movie of the same title (the Spanish is "La Casa Muda"). I haven't seen the original.


J Luis Rivera said...

As you may remember, I didn't really like the original, but I keep hearing about how good the remake is, that I wonder if I failed to see its magic. I'll have to check it out. But I'll expect it to dissapoint me.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, J Luis,

I remember reading your review. It's not a lot different than what I wrote here. I somehow doubt that you'll like this film any better.