This Ole House Heard Many Shouts
Silent House is another “based-on,” only this time the original is another film based on theoretical fact in a 1940s pueblo. That model is La casa muda, Uruguay’s submission for 2012 Oscars, so the two are more or less as simultaneous as the same-set day-night English-Spanish 1931 Dracula films. There are those who champion the latter as better than its Lugosi counterpart, so possibly the present continuous single-take South American chiller is better than the North American by-the-numbers “experienced in a single shot re-imagining” in New Rochelle, New York.
A third co-directed feature by real-life partners Chris Kentis and Laura Lau and from a script by the latter, who also produced, the eighty-eight minutes follows in a long line of trapped-in-a-haunted-house horror flicks. The “House” in the titles of so many of them indicates either the supernatural edifice itself, or its vibes of inherited guilt for a past crime, or else where aliens, malevolent souls or deranged folk practice their audience-scaring evil.
Frequently fronted by non-flowing water -- Poe’s Usher by “a black and lurid tarn,” this one by an irrelevant lake -- such spooky places are large, old, drafty, cluttered with antique sometimes sheeted furniture, and provide nooks and crannies, staircases and hallways, basements and attics for suspense music broken by whatever jumps out. Far from silent, they are merely quiet enough for the creaks of stone and wood structures -- specifically commented on here -- to become maddeningly noticeable.
Increasingly in modern takes, the hysterical sufferer is adolescent or barely older. Here it is Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), a full-breasted young woman apparently keeping to herself, working for her father John (Adam Trese), and not certain what direction to take but thinking of striking out on her own path.
She, Daddy and Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) are at the family country place, usually occupied by cousins in summer but empty this time around, boarded against squatters and vandals and to be emptied and spruced up with a view to selling it. The two men have a testy relationship, younger Peter chafing at the other’s know-it-all imperiousness, while both seem normally protective of the motherless daughter and niece and “can’t get over how grown-up you are.”
Electricity not turned on and windows covered, light comes from fluorescent lanterns and a flashlight -- and, later, Polaroid flashes -- so characters exist in disembodied facial-plane highlights. Sarah only ventures into daylight on the porch when Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross) bicycles by to insist that she is a friend who has missed her former playmate and hopes they two can hang out together. Hesitant, pointing to her head to indicate holes in her memory, Sarah unconvincingly blurts “I do remember you” and agrees to get together in the evening.
Peter away on an errand, she and Daddy investigate noises upstairs and turn up nothing. Scolding her to begin sorting out and discarding things, he again goes to check, and all grows silent until she finds him stretched out from a bloody wound around the eye.
From here on, even or especially when Peter comes back, Olsen’s job is to hyperventilate and stifle screams. Her father’s body disappears, locked doors and windows keep her imprisoned; bangs and footsteps, dragging sounds, glimpses of a shadowy stalker (Adam Burnett) and precocious little girl possibly the once-was heroine (Haley Murphy), a literal bloodbath and giant white plastic ear are what we perceive through the hysterical woman.
The final quarter-of-an-hour was reshot after a première at Sundance. In this unraveling with reappearances, there is kinship with popular but false Black Swan. Silent House incorporates the tics and tricks of its subset of the terror genre, though the resolution is one with other relatively more recent examples. Severe childhood trauma is a root cause and concern, according to the filmmakers, and confronted more squarely than in the ten-minutes-shorter Spanish-language source. Diffused by the thrust and treatment of all that has gone before, however, the explanation seems afterthought, too abrupt and truncated to be effective.
The Kentis-Lau Open Water made little splash despite realistic, muted fear; SH sinks in the school of mere staccato scare.
(Released by Open Road Films and rated "R" for disturbing content and terror.)