Sometimes a horror film comes so very close to greatness that’s it’s almost painful to point out its faults. To give it an average rating suggests that the film is average as a whole, and betrays the possibility that the work is made up of moments of sheer brilliance and expert craft, well worth the price of admission alone, but that some elements just don’t work and – whereas they don’t destroy the film – they essentially drive a wedge between Really Good and Horror Masterpiece.
The concept behind Silent House, heavily ballyhooed in its advertising, is simple – one single take, uninterrupted, for the entirety of the film. Ambitious to be sure, but after poor results from some recent genre gimmicks as endurance-test “torture porn,” the recent surge in 1980’s remakes such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Thing, and the now ubiquitous “found footage” exercise (and that backlash started pretty much the morning after The Blair Witch Project was released), the promise of another “angle” on horror seemed more like a threat. But credit directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, and cinematographer Igor Martinovic, for not just stopping at the ingenuity of their undertaking and whirling the camera around the proceedings without any real intent, but actually taking time to explore the possibilities inherent in their approach. How close can we get with that camera – and when? When do we necessarily want to use the camera as the P.O.V. or our protagonist, and when do we want to focus squarely on her? The majority of the film has actress Elizabeth Olsen in frame as she wanders from room to room investigating strange sounds in a dilapidated house; it’s those moments when the camera slowly, and without warning or perceived intent, swings its focus away from her and down a dark hallway, or focuses squarely at a moldy wall, that cause a sense of dread and terror before anything at all has really happened. In lesser hands there would have been less attention paid to such detail and mood, with the filmmakers patting themselves on the back simply for pulling off a ballsy cinematic feat. There is true artistry at play here that elevates the concept to something much more effective; one only hopes that when the inevitable string of one-shot horror films starts pouring in, their filmmakers lend as much dedication to their projects.
For a film hanging on the every move of one character, performance is key. Elizabeth Olsen, who last year picked up over a dozen international awards and countless accolades for her work in the intense Martha Marcy May Marlene, is remarkable here as the terrified and haunted Sarah. Finding a great lead performance in modern American horror is rare (The Unborn’s Odette Yustman springs immediately to mind); here Olsen goes through all the motions – cheer, curiosity, panic, trauma, sheer terror – without a cut to prep or collect herself, or apply “mood makeup.” It is truly impressive, more so when you consider just how tight the camera is on her for much of the film. It’s an acting marvel. Comparisons have been made to the film essentially being a filmed play, but it’s an unfair comparison when you consider again how intimate the camera is with the subject, and moreover, just how much movement there is throughout the proceedings. Indoors and outdoors, upstairs and downstairs, and often in a frenzied run – one hopes that the DVD extras will explore in detail the set this film was shot in.
Speaking of performance, only six actors appear in this film, and unfortunately, one of them is Adam Trese as Sarah’s father John. The film opens with Sarah and John entering the titular house, and pretty much from the first lines of dialogue, the disparity between Olsen’s and Trese’s acting chops are painfully apparent. For a film with an extremely limited cast of characters, having one of them sound like your standard student film actor, satisfied with helping his buddy out with a few lines of dialogue in exchange for a couple of slices of pizza, is poorly advised. This is most true when such actor is one of your central characters, and the stage is seemingly set for a poorly-acted, phoned-in horror flick. Again, it’s ultimately Olsen’s film, and she has enough gravity to carry the intense film on her shoulders after John is temporarily silenced – but then he gets some lines again, and that element of amateurism rears its head once again. The film essentially opens and closes with dialogue, essentially fulfilling the purposes of “Once upon a time…” and “…and that’s what happened!”, and unfortunately, these bookends fall flat.
Which isn’t necessarily entirely the fault of Trese, either. It’s hard to weigh in on the climax of this film. It isn’t necessarily unsatisfactory – there have been many a twist ending in indie horror films that just didn’t work, and really, that doesn’t classify this film’s ending either – but after such an intense ride that has all but presented itself as a haunted house story, this reviewer was hoping for a bit more. The fact that I started to see where the film was going about fifteen minutes before the “reveal” wasn’t the problem, either – I was just hoping there’d be a bit more to a horrific back-story that was slowly revealing itself. To say much more would be to spoil the film – and again, the ride is definitely worth taking – but the destination doesn’t really pay off, as much as, to its credit, it makes sense to everything that has come before.