‘Silent House’ Review
When I go into a movie, I try not to have any expectations. I forget what my friends tell me, what the trailers are about, and what other reviewers have written. I prefer to watch movies with an open mind and a full popcorn bucket. It only took about five minutes into Silent House before my open mind became cluttered with thoughts like, “Wait, what’s going on?” “Why should I care about these people?” and ”What’s up with the camera motion?” Here’s the rundown:
“Wait, what’s going on?”
The scenario is of twenty something year old girl Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) helping her dad, John (Adam Trese) and her Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) clean out their old, boarded-up family home. No history on the house is given, no answers as to how it got to the decrepit state it’s in or why they’re cleaning it now. It’s hard to be wary of a house we know nothing about, especially since main character Sarah seems like the kind of gal who needs to sleep with a nightlight on in the best of circumstances. The house itself is appropriately old and creaky, but overall looks more likely to house dustbunnies than restless spirits.
After a heavy dose of false-alarms where Sarah gets startled by every teeny thump and glimpse of her shadow, the audience is ready for the real deal. But it never quite comes. Something real is happening, we know that, but we’re not sure what that something is. She scrambles backwards against some unidentified evil, hides under things, runs, the usual course of action, but we’re never clued in to what it is she’s seeing. This technique can have merit — keep the audience in the dark to build suspense– but it falls short in Silent House. Instead of wondering what this monster she’s running from is, I’m wondering when this movie will be over.
Part of the problem is the directors took the “leave the audience in the dark” technique to literal levels. I get it, a dim house is spookier than a well-lit one, but you can’t be afraid of a movie you can’t see. I try to hush the cynical part of myself, but can’t help think that the family could’ve unboarded a few windows to let in some light before beginning their cleaning project.
The plot twist, when it eventually comes, is too little too late and seems disconcertingly disconnected with the previous events of the movie. It’s like they ran out of ideas 9/10ths of the way through and decided to fill the gaps with someone’s bad highschool writing attempt. The movie ended with more questions raised than answered, but at least it was over.
“Why should I care about these people?”
The best movies have good plot and good characters. In some movies, there is bad plot but good characters. In other movies, there’s bad character development but good plot. This movie failed just as thoroughly in character development as it did in plot. All we know about Sarah is she’s a college dropout. This she tells mysterious childhood friend Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross). And that’s it — the subject never comes up again. We don’t know what John, Sarah’s dad thinks about this, because we hardly see him and they rarely converse. Uncle Peter is a little better, though he definitely comes off creepier than intended. We can at least see a bit of an argument between John and Peter, though it gets undermined by Sarah’s giggling about it. Before anyone can have a halfway decent conversation so the audience can learn who these people are and what we should think about them, the “scary” stuff starts and all further vocalizations are reduced to screaming, Sarah calling for her dad, and gasping for breath. One thing we can conclude about Sarah is that she didn’t run track — every move leaves her panting for air.
“What’s up with the camera motion?”
The camera work is dizzying and strange with no consistency. Some scenes were shot from Sarah’s perspective, some from just behind her right shoulder. During any sort of action scene, the camera seems to get positioned behind a chair leg or right outside a slightly-opened door. Was this supposed to be artsy? I have no idea.
The worst were a handful of scenes shot in the jiggly, purposely-amateur way popularized by The Blair Witch Project. When Sarah was running, we had the jarring ups and downs of a cameraman running next to her. Perhaps it was an attempt to include the audience in Sarah’s experience. Perhaps the cameraman was being gallant: We know nothing about Sarah or what she’s running from, but he’ll make damn sure we at least know what the motion of running is.
Whatever the intended reasons, the camera work didn’t strengthen any audience-to-character ties or heighten any feelings of fear or suspense. Really, it just made me nauseous.
So were there any good qualities to the movie? Well, I’ve covered plot, and character, and camera. But yes, there’s something that’s very good that works well with this kind of movie –its runtime: at a mere hour and 28 minutes, it’s something almost anyone can endure.
Directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, Silent House stars Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Julia Taylor Ross, and Haley Murphy.