Silent House. 2011. Directed by Chris Kentis & Laura Lau. Screenplay by Lau; based on the original screenplay by Oscar Estévez for the film La casa muda.
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Julia Taylor Ross, Adam Barnett, & Haley Murphy. Elle Driver/Tazora Films.
Rated R. 86 minutes.
Always a sucker for films that attempt to work outside the box, in any degree, the original version of this American remake, La casa muda, was pretty damn good. Seeing a film of this nature with sly editing making everything look like one long shot is ambitious, especially considering it works to great effect. When I heard the remake was coming I didn’t feel too confident it’d turn out near as good. However, with directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (the latter also adapting the screenplay) planning on replicating the real-time feel of the original, there came further hope. It isn’t simply a gimmick. What this technique does is pull the viewer into the perspective of the lead character, Sarah, so that as she turns a corner we’re not exactly sure, like her, if something terrifying lies around it. Further than that, the way this interrupted take technique presents itself lends to the story, as a lot of the time you’re busy following Sarah – too busy to try and suss out what’s really going on. Not to say this is a brilliant twist, nor is it unique or original. But as a smart viewer, I like to believe I’m able to sometimes get ahead of the plot. Here, I felt mostly too concerned with riding next to Sarah in the almost P.O.V style filming. With eerie sound design, a dreamy and almost nightmarish feel, Elizabeth Olsen does her part by nailing the lead role and keeping us fettered to terror, as her character navigates the shadowy, silent house.
Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) heads out to the lakeside summer house she spent time in as a little girl. She and her father, John (Adam Trese), are packing the place up, as it’s about to be sold. They pack up boxes, throw things together, and try to get all the last minute chores finished up. Soon, they’ve got John’s brother Pete (Eric Sheffer Stevens) there to help, although the two brothers don’t exactly always get along. Later on, Sarah runs into a girl named Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross) who says they knew each other once upon a time; at first Sarah doesn’t remember, then says she does but her memory is just a little spotty.
The longer they stay at the house by the lake, Sarah begins to start seeing people lurking in the darkness. When Pete leaves, things get worse. Eventually, John is found bleeding, unconscious, and Sarah sees more people, hears them, including a little girl standing by the road outside. The situation spirals into madness. When Pete comes back he finds Sarah delirious. But as he investigates the house it becomes clear there is something definitely sinister in the making.
Cinematographer Igor Martinovic (D.P on House of Cards, as well as some great documentaries such as The Tillman Story and Man on Wire) gives us a frenetic style almost akin to the found footage genre, but there are also times where the camerawork creeps along with Sarah, as it puts us directly in her perspective. So the balance between nice steady frames and the more bumpy handheld style is pretty good. Because we get that feel of being right alongside Sarah yet there’s also that chaos together with it, and it works to make things unsettling. The lighting is really spectacular here, too. Seeing as how the film is sort of experimental, in that it’s made to look like an entirely uninterrupted take (edited keenly for that effect), I’m amazed they were able to work the lighting out at all. Let alone make things look so dark and gloomy. At a certain point, it feels as if we’re in a dream and floating along through the darkness in the halls of this house, lost and bewildered just as much as Sarah herself.
Adding to the suspense and tension of the cinematography is the sound design, courtesy of Glenn To. Morgan, whose work spans everything from 9&1/2 Weeks to The Crow to Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday. Without a score, Silent House manages to wrap itself around you using ambient rumbles, the pulse and swell of noise, combined with all the regular noises of a house amplified due to the near constant silence – doors closing, floorboards underneath the feet, and so on transform into near characters themselves at certain points in time. Whenever a production is able to create such an all around atmosphere of dread by both its use of visuals and also the overall sound design, there’s a good chance I’m at least going to be affected a slight bit. What happens in Silent House completely unnerves me, from the top on down.
In a film where there’s basically only one performance that matters, Elizabeth Olsen brings a theatrical sort of quality to the character of Sarah. Apparently the directors wanted someone with a stage presence, as the demands of long takes and so much focus on Sarah at all times (she’s in every last scene) required that type of disposition. Honestly, no matter how you ultimately feel about this movie as a whole, you’ve got to admit Olsen gives a quality performance. If a lesser actor were in her place it may not have even held my focus for its sparse 86-minute runtime. With only a couple other people in the film, the central cast itself only consisting of three people, Silent House is totally minimalist, and Olsen carries so much of the film’s weight by immersing us into Sarah’s perspective. Especially once the plot details are revealed and the nasty details come out, Olsen depicts the realization of Sarah, the pieces fitting into place in her mind so perfectly; it’s a mix somewhere between astonishment and confusion. But the best of her performance is that she really does not let on anything to the viewer, so that the first time around when you watch this it’s easy to get blindsided with the truth, just as Sarah ends up. Part of that is the writing, as well. Most of it, though, is Olsen. She deserves better recognition, this could’ve turned out terribly misguided were she not cast.
Never afraid of being in the realm of unpopular opinion, Silent House is a 4-star affair. While I try not to be too hard on remakes for no reason, often they never reach the excellence of their original versions. La casa muda was great; so is the remake. Olsen gives herself over to the role wholly. Backing her is a bunch of solid camerawork, as well as the fact it’s edited smoothly to feel like one single take throughout the entire film. The movie is quick, dreamy, disturbing. I can’t spoil any of the plot further than what I’ve said because this finale really ought to be seen without knowing anything; like many films. But the impact of the plot’s conclusions here are part of what makes everything worth it, part of why the whole affected me. Moreover, this one deserves a second watch after you’ve seen what happens, as there are plenty of opportunities to pick out foreshadowing moments, brief pieces that lay out the way forward. Give this its chance and perhaps you’ll be unsettled, if that’s what you’re looking for like me.