An unremarkable, boarded-up home on a lake provides the setting for Silent House, Chris Kenson and Laura Lau's quasi-realistic remake of an Argentinean chiller. For the most part, there isn't anything distinctive about the unlit space: white sheets cover furniture; old doors groan and jangle when they're used; and hardwood floors creak under every footstep. Yet, that familiarity, that feeling like we're creeping through any old run-of-the-mill space, is a deliberate part of the essence the creators of Open Water long to achieve, punctuating matter-of-fact surroundings that heighten our perception of a tormented girl's burgeoning fear. There's not much more to the premise beyond that, though -- an eighty-minute stretch of restrained, sensory-provoking anxiety -- but with capable execution of an ersatz one-take gimmick and Elizabeth Olsen as an emotional barometer, this tumble through a space with skeletons in its moldy closets exploits its assets well enough to achieve a dim atmospheric stranglehold.
Silent House resides in the middle ground between two cinematic techniques that have spiked in popularity: the long take, persevering from its quaint origins in the likes of Hitchcock's Rope into more perfunctory usage within Children of Men and Hanna, and the neo-realism of found footage horror productions like [REC] and The Blair Witch Project. It focuses on Sarah (Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene), a mid-twenties girl who's helping her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) clear out and spruce up the family's old lake house before it goes on the market, a place still packed to the gills with old furnishings and mementos. She shuffles around the two-story house, lights a few manual lanterns, squeaks along the wood floors, tosses some stuff in the garbage ... all ways of bringing our awareness of the area to a base, normal level. And, pretty much on cue, things turn weird when she hears knocking on doors and clamoring of footsteps within places in the house where nobody's present. Is it squatters, intruders, or something else?
Assorted lanterns and flashlights provide the only luminescence among the house's creaky architecture, which Silent House uses to play with our assessment of a pragmatic living space, weaving through this gloomy labyrinth of mundane corridors in what appears to be one sweeping camera movement. While it's not one long take -- Kenson and Lau cleverly replicate a Hitchcock-esque tactic to create the film's seamless effect, easily its linchpin -- it comes close enough to tricking one's perception into buying the idea; focusing on the flooring, wallpapers, propped mattresses and draped sheets achieves a proverbial point-of-view on Sarah's mania, while Igor Martinovic's woozy (yet calculated) camera movement pulls off an observant fly-on-the-wall effect. Submerged in the house's innate thuds and a disquieting focus on Sarah's reactions, the claustrophobia environment reaches occasional moments where it'll elevate blood pressure and prod at the nerves, bolstered by guileless scare tactics and fluctuations in the token horror-movie score.
Elizabeth Olsen rarely leaves direct sight, only periodically drifting out of the camera's point-of-view, which becomes Silent House's most significant asset. Menacing footsteps, rolling bottles, and clumsy sprints from room to room wouldn't have carried the same weight without her disarming, complex essence and nuanced mannerisms, her blend of puzzlement and terror lending more validity to the occurring events than they'd achieve with most other actresses willing to take on this project. The other characters really don't matter in the emotional arc, really, only for the meager script's plotting; both her family members and a friend from her past, the only other significant faces we see, get their respective points across without many infuriating dramatic foibles. That's both a testament to the film's limited purposes and the indistinct, occasionally humdrum nature of the acting. What's important here is Olsen, given her ubiquitous presence, and the young actress' composure pumps energy into bland, occasionally insipid points. And there's an air of secretiveness about her and the "holes in her memory" that gradually feeds our curiosity.
There's the rub with Silent House, though: there's not much else that we haven't seen before beyond the "realistic" scares it reaches by its one-take gimmick and powerhouse actress, the product of a skimpy, purpose-driven script. That includes the obligatory plot twist at its climax that, really, doesn't scare up much of a surprise if you're paying attention, or if you possess exposure to other mind-screw thrillers. Granted, there's something to be said for what's achieved with a handful of actors, a smattering of junk to populate the house, and a few lanterns to light the way in this exercise of fraught mania and the ghosts of dark secrets; it's a straightforward but exhilarating creation when looked at through the lens of minimalism and raw motivation, and the twist still takes flight when examined in this way. But there should be more ingenuity and a meatier story fueling the terror around such shadowy corners and behind locked doors as dusk's darkness blankets the eerie house, and that's ultimately what's left at the end of Kenson and Lau's endurance run: a tense purpose without the added punch it needs to clamp onto distinctiveness.
Video and Audio:
Evaluating Blu-ray transfers of digitally-shot films can be a pain sometimes, and Silent House's 1.85:1 1080p AVC presentation marks one of those occasions. Here, cinematographer Igor Martinovic breaks out a Canon EOS 5D Mark II -- yup, a DSLR -- to capture the dim shadows, craggy textures, and fluctuated close-ups intended in the confines of the lakeside home, which exhibits both the benefits and pitfalls of the medium. In some sequences, the details confidently emerge from the image, from the grain in hardwood paneling and the fabric of Sarah's scarf to the patterns in wallpaper, while the tone shifts in ever-present close-ups remains satisfactory. However, the trade-off comes in occasionally lackluster light gradation and grainy black levels, not to mention an inherent flatness of detail that's occasionally masked by playing with the depth-of-field. All this emerges in Universal's transfer, and it's often difficult to distinguish what's inherent in the intermediate and what's not. Keeping that in mind: there are several instances of gray/bland black levels, a few peculiar digital odds-'n-ends, and wishy-washy detail that suggest lackluster transfer elements, but the disc does achieve the mood well enough.
This 5-channel Master Audio track isn't all that easy to cover either, though it's about on-par with the visuals. It's got a lot going for it: dialogue sticks closer to the intentions of its design, from deeper baritone voices from the men to the soft, curious dialogue from Elizabeth Olsen, while her whimpers, gasps, and other noises telegraph the ambient punch needed to authenticate her trauma. Conversely, the natural sound effects that echo throughout the house create a moody space as well: a thud on hardwood flooring, the tinkling of a rolling glass bottle, and the harsh tug of a padlock on a door get those attitude-heavy details down just right. Yet, on top of occasionally muffled dimensionality, there's not much in terms of surround awareness present here; certain sound effects make an effort to travel to the top and rear of the stage to create an immersive space, but there's a forced quality about those efforts that drag them down. Again, though, that's likely inherent in the overall design, and if they have to cast a less-wide aural net in order to preserve the natural echo and space awareness that the other effects created, then it's a success of an experience.
Commentary with Co-Directors Chris Kenson and Laura Lau:
Routinely, listening to audio commentaries from independent filmmakers are rewarding experiences. They exhibit enthusiasm about their craft, are eager to "flaunt" the tactics used in the film's production, and don't shy away from topics. When you've got a film such as Silent House that predicates so intently on a specific device like the one-take mechanism, the mixture of the two should render a relatively in-depth and captivating track -- and it does. The duo also responsible for Open Water get their hands dirty by discussing the long-take structure, namely planning shots in advance, revealing the rough number of shots that occur in the film, and adjusting the camera so it'll properly transition between different types of exposure due to complex lighting. Kenson talks about his experience as an editor and how it applies to a film like this, while the pair discuss es moving around harsh light and hard shadows in certain scenes and equalizing noise (such as the feedback from a nearby airport). Much to the chagrin of the listener, they keep the mystery of every cut in the film close to the chest, yet they make up for that kept secret.
Alongside the Blu-ray presentation, Disc Two is a DVD copy of the film that does, indeed, also contain the commentary track.
I'm of two minds about my overall impressions on Silent House. Even ignoring that Chris Kenson and Laura Lau remade this from an overseas film, the cautious critic in me can't overlook the fact that it's lacking in originality, fleshed-out writing, and tried-and true scares, missing something from each of these arenas that keeps it from excelling as the horror-suspense hybrid it aspires to be. The enthusiastic side of me, however -- the side that really digs Open Water, Blair Witch, [REC], and similar subtly-thrilling films -- appreciates what it took for the filmmakers to achieve its one-take mechanic, how it funnels into the effectively eerie atmosphere build around the lakeside house, and how Elizabeth Olsen's fraught, lithesome emotions bottle up the raw anxiety created in the scenario. Cases can be made for either side, but, ultimately, there's a specific essence the film achieves that drew me in for two screenings. Universal's Blu-ray sports a few tolerable issues in the audiovisual department, but it's ultimately an appealing presentation that's accompanied by an involving commentary. Definitely worth a Rental, while fans of Olsen and of slow-burn domestic/haunted house chillers might find even more worth their time.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site