Silent House


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Silent House
"All suspense is lost when everything is dark, strange and unfamiliar."

A frightened pretty young woman with blood stains on her white tank top tiptoes and sometimes runs through a dark house, holding a swaying lamp.

In the opening shot of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau's Silent House, we see Sarah (Elisabeth Olsen) from above, sitting on a rock in the lake wearing mauve tights and a green parka, as if we were the autumn sky observing her. The camera follows the calm young woman as she walks to the house, an orange scarf wrapped around her neck like a big woolly snake. The trouble starts when a car arrives. It is her father (Adam Trese) and ominous music tells us that this is a horror film. "Hey sweetie", he says, and calls her princess, while informing her and us that he checked her Facebook page at an internet cafe. In a flurry of exposition with Daddy and Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), we promptly find out that their phones don't work at this location and that there is a problem with the lights.

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In this remake of Gustavo Hernández' La Casa Muda, the 2011 Uruguayan entry at the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011, Elisabeth Olsen plays Sarah, who, together with her father and uncle, is de-cluttering the family's half-abandoned lakeside house where she spent her childhood.

Why they like to clean out the home in darkness, with all the windows barricaded shut, and no electricity (because the rats ate the cables) and only hand-held lamps swinging to and fro, can be explained as metaphor.

Nevertheless, it is a distracting question for the audience, who can never really get a grasp of the lay-out of this house, where horror invades and never frightens precisely because we cannot figure out how the rooms connect and where the dangers could be lurking.

The characters, too, walk through the building as if they had never been there before. "The uncanny (Das Unheimliche, 'the unhomely') is in some way a species of the familiar (Das Heimliche, 'the homely')", as Sigmund Freud explained, and all suspense is lost, when everything is dark, strange, and unfamiliar.

Olsen has an intriguing face to look at and manages to transcend the stereotype of possibly-paranoid-girl-with-abusive-past, just as she did in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Both films have a lake house, a very troubled personal history for the protagonist and family interactions that are less than credible, more exposition than character exploration.

Here, three characters, cut off from the world, discover the world inside the dark and not so silent house. Sound design is problematic in this film on two levels. On the one hand, the diegetic bumps and thumps and footsteps are impossible to locate and, on the other, the non-diegetic music whooshes and trembles unnecessarily.

If you enjoy certain horror film clichés, you may find your favourites here. The heroine sheds her layers of clothing one by one, from the orange wool noose, until she is left in her blood-smeared white undershirt - the poster girl for horror heroines. Then there is the friend from the past, who comes in and out of focus and cannot be remembered and the mysterious child who belongs to no time, and the dangerous mold that affected, or as a character says, "infected" the house. "If you cover it up, you'll never know", Sarah says about the mold and exposes her own mindset.

Half way into the movie, the bottles of alcohol, the polaroids, and the flashbacks give two options to solve the riddle. Both are equally plausible, even at the very end, the constructed nature conquers all urgency.

With a little less panting, less music, less clump feet, more of the interesting types of wallpaper, more of the lake, and more of the subtle humour that replaces the obligatory kitchen knife with a whisk, Silent House could be less predictable.

"It's just a game, don't be such a baby" is the only chilling line in the context of this film.

Unfortunately, the movie does not transcend this game and falls flat as a psychological thriller, as well as a tale designed to provide genre horror. I'd love to see Elisabeth Olsen in a movie where she is given the chance to play someone who is neither frightened, nor unhinged, by her surroundings.

Reviewed on: 09 Mar 2012
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Silent House packshot
A trip to clear out a lake house turns into a nightmare for a young woman.
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Director: Chris Kentis, Laura Lau

Writer: Gustavo Hernández, Laura Lau

Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Julia Taylor Ross, Adam Barnett, Haley Murphy

Year: 2011

Runtime: 85 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US, France


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The House Of The Devil
The Silent House